Holiness is the most attractive quality, the more intense experience we ever get of sheer life – authentic, firsthand living, not life looked at and enjoyed from a distance. We find ourselves in on the operations of God himself, not talking about them or reading about them. But at the very moment we find ourselves in on more than ourselves, we realize we also might very well lose ourselves. We cannot domesticate the holy. Moses didn’t take a photograph of the burning bush to take home and show his wife and children. Isaiah’s singing angels were not accompanied by a Handel oratorio, which he then purchased on a CD for later listening at his leisure. John didn’t reduce his vision of Jesus into charts which he used to entertain religious consumers with titillating views on the future.
Holiness is a furnace that transforms the men and women who get too close to it. Holy, holy, holy is not Christian needlepoint – it is the banner of a revolution, the revolution.
Category Archives: Growth
In reference to Exodus 19:17-20:21:
There are several reasons why the Israelites don’t want to be close to God. Yahweh’s behavior in this passage is intimidating, with all the lightning, thunder, smoke and explosions (reminiscent of the enchanter Tim in The Holy Grail). Who would want to get close to all that fire and noise?
Yahweh does distance himself here from his people, but he does it for a purpose. He has just delivered them from Egyptian bondage, and lest they think he will protect them no matter how they behave, he wants them to revere him, particularly as he delivers the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17). They need to understand that he is holy, powerful, and concerned about obedience.
But in this incident, even as Yahweh is loud and frightful, he is also near and tangible. At the beginning of the passage, Moses brings the people out of their camp for the purpose of meeting God. God doesn’t allow them to come close, but there’s a good reason for that: he’s trying to protect them from harm.
A telephone call came into the rectory. It was the father of a twenty-year-old man named Doug. Doug had contracted this strange disease [AIDS]and was asking for a visit by a priest. Monsignor Henry, the pastor in his seventies, asked all three full-time priests to go; each refused, using the severity and unknown cause of the disease as an excuse. Monsignor Henry then approached me. I was hesitant and was going to use my studies as an excuse. However, when he agreed to accompany me, I decided to go.
Once we arrived at the hospital, we were told to put on protective “moon suits” before going in to Doug’s room. He looked much older and sicker than I had expected. We talked softly for about fifteen minutes; then Doug began to cry.
“What’s wrong, Doug?” I asked.
He looked at me and with incredible sadness replied, “It dawns on me that no one has even touched me in over three months.”
I let those words sink in and wondered how I would have handled life without a handshake or hug for three months. As I thought about that, I suddenly became aware of Monsignor Henry slowly removing the helmet and garb of the protective “moon suit.” And then I witnessed the parable of the judgement of the nations played out as elderly Monsignor Henry bent over and hugged dying Doug.
A holy silence descended upon the room. I wondered how Monsignor Henry could be willing to rick his own life by responding to Doug that way.
We drove home in virtual silence. As we approached the church in the Bronx, I turned to Monsignor Henry, but before I could say a word he simply said with tears in his eyes, “Years ago, I told Jesus that I would give him everything – and I mean everything. Today, I was able to give to Jesus what he has given to me.” Monsignor Henry subconsciously knew that selfless openness could lead to an encounter with the God who empties himself in the ordinary yet sacred moment before him.
In judged Jerusalem [during the time of Jeremiah] it was impossible to confuse material prosperity with God’s blessing. It was impossible to confuse social status with God’s favor. It was impossible to confuse national pride with God’s glory. It was impossible to confuse rituals of religion with God’s presence. The clutter of possessions was gone; the trappings of status were gone. And God was present. All the cultural and political and religious and social assumptions and presuppositions that interfere with the clear hearing of God’s word in Jeremiah’s preaching were taken away. Conditions had never been better for developing a mature community of faith.
The people of God must have a visible, tangible, experiential shape. This is not, however, simply a sociological or organizational necessity. It is essential to the mission Dei. The witness to God’s loving and saving work in history is through the people God calls and sets apart for this mission. Every mission community is a historical witness to the work of God being carried out; it is concrete evidence of God’s purposeful action. This is what the Holy Spirit does: it forms mission communities so that the gospel may be incarnated in particular places, to be the witness to Jesus Christ.
Yesterday was a crazy day. It was one of those days where I needed to be in 10 places all at the same time. I am trying to be more aware when I feel this way so that I can slow down and not rush. Because I had slowed down, I got into a conversation. Actually it was not a conversation but just me listening. When I could tell that this was the route the interaction was going to take my first desire was to disengage as quickly as possible. After all there were things that needed to be done.
Thankfully God did not let that happen. I continued to listen and I could see a change come over the other person even though I didn’t say anything or offer any help. The longer they talked the more life came into their eyes and their countenance seemed to lift. As I saw this happen, I began to focus more on the person. I asked a couple of small questions to allow the conversation to continue but they were merely moments of permission for the other person to continue to share what they wanted to share.
The conversation ended naturally. As I left, I felt energized. I saw how grace can be extended through listening. I was also convicted about how much I listen not to extend grace but to prove a point, steer a person in a direction I want them to go, or to highlight something I did. Most of my listening is self-centered. Yesterday reminded me that there is a ministry of grace called listening. God models it well and expects us to also.
Most churches desire to impact people with the Gospel. For many churches, there is a recognition that people in their community do not know about their church and the great experience they can have at their church. Questions arise, how do we let them know about us? How do we best move our congregation to action to address this question?
This perspective assumes that people have an informational problem about their church. They don’t have the information. The assumption is that if the information was provided in a warm and welcoming format people would show up.
Thomas Rainer, in his book The Unchurched Next Door, states that many unchurched people who come to church will come if brought by a current attendee of the church. “As I have also indicated, inviting them and taking them into the church building is very important.” (Rainer, 246) Even the most resistant groups toward churches that Rainer studied would be open to a personal invitation to church (Rainer, 240). But current attendees are not inviting and the answer many churches arrive at is a professional presentation (advertising blitz) of our church will help them to get over the fear of inviting.
I wonder if in God’s great wisdom the best thing for churches is that the advertising campaigns are not successful. Why would I say such a thing? First if the tools worked, as we dream and pray they would, the churches would be unprepared for the influx of needs, questions, and growth opportunities that this mass of people would bring. They would simply overwhelm the systems of many churches.
Second, they would enjoy a great service but would they be able to engage in a helpful and meaningful way through the rest of the churches’ growth processes? The discipleship systems many churches have in place are not exceptional at producing disciples who actively engage others.
This goes back to the initial problem. People are not active and engaged enough in the community to provide the large scale introduction to their church. Again the problem is that churches’ internal systems are not actively producing, on a large scale, disciples who are impacting their world in a way that causes others to come and see why they are the way they are. It is not an informational problem, it is a discipleship problem.
Yesterday as I was driving around town I was pondering the statement, “God wants to be known.” I deeply believe that God does not hide. While He is mysterious, He desires us to know and experience Him through relationship. Jesus’ prayer with the disciples before His crucifixion recorded in John 17 talks about the knowledge of God that comes through relationship.
While I believe in God’s desire to be known, I have an issue with the unknown parts of God’s character. There are things that He has not answered about the way He works and about His character. My assumption that He wants to be known creates a tension with what He has not revealed through His word, His creation, and His community.
I have a couple of options on how to handle this situation. The first is to state that what He has not revealed to us is not important to knowing Him. The questions we have about Him in these areas are not important to understanding Him. The second option is to state that what He has not revealed is not comprehensible to us now either because of sinfulness or how we are created. This means that the boundaries of our humanness will always limit our knowledge of Him.
This forced me back to an assumption in my understanding of God’s desire to be known, does relationship mean a journey to complete knowledge?
Christian theological claims about providence and anthropology are devoid of any meaningful content in the absence of eschatology. If there is no given telos, as opposed to a projected goal or objective, then the temporal acts of ordering creation are literally pointless meanderings, because they lack any point of reference for determining a direction over time.There is no eventual destination beyond the horizon only infinitely more horizons. If there is no given end, then providence is a vacuous doctrine, for there is no created order that can be said to unfold over time, and human acts are reduced to creative self-assertions, because there are no temporal trajectories with which humans may align their desires and will. Without an operative destiny, we remain enslaved to an infinite regress of historical cultural construction and posthuman self-creation.
Many congregations are in significant decline. For a lot of people, the congregation is little more than a haven in a heartless world, a dispenser of religious goods and services to individuals. Nevertheless, it is still populated by the people of God.
God chooses to create new futures in the most inauspicious of places. Through the Incarnation, we discover that God’s future is at work not where we tend to look but among the people we write off as dead or powerless to make things different.
If the Spirit has been poured out in the church – the church as it is, not some ideal type – then we are compelled to believe that the Spirit of God is at work and alive among the congregations of America. Congregations matter. But they need leaders with the skills to cultivate an environment in which the Spirit-given presence of God’s future may emerge among the people of God.