How the Resurrection of Jesus CHANGES death!

1How the Resurrection of Jesus CHANGES death!

Easter Day is now a memory for all of us…but the POWER and IMPACT of Easter will change our lives in the here and now AND in the future. Follow me here because this truth and this Jesus is truly the HOPE of the world. Who needs hope in life? We do…because whether we want to admit it or not, we are all on “the clock.” Life is moving forward and one day we will all have to face the reality that Jesus conquered. So, this devotional, though longer, is SO important for you to embrace. Here’s what I want you to do…read what is below. Read it slowly and prayerfully. It will change your life and YOUR anticipation and perspective on what the Bible calls, “the final enemy.”

Easter SHOUTS this truth – the resurrection of Jesus CHANGES everything about death and the grave. NOW, you might be thinking, “how morbid.” But trust me, people like you wonder about these things. You may not want to admit it, but questions about death and our anxiety about death swirl around every person’s heart and mind. So read below…if you want MORE, email me!

Because of Easter, death can now be our friend.

“Easter is God’s ‘victory over death.’ Death is no longer the curse that it was. It is no longer the power that rules. It is no longer the enemy to be feared. But here’s the twist. In doing so, Jesus also reclaims death and befriends it – not death in its perverted form, but death in its state of grace. Jesus reclaims death as a natural blessing to the rhythm of life and shows us that it is possible to befriend it.”

Death Definition – Death is the termination of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. That’s what the medical profession says about this mystery of human existence.

Even so, permit me to share with you about death from a biblical and historical vantage point:

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew Sheol, the place of the dead, was seen as not much different from Homer’s Hades. People were said to be asleep in Sheol. In and around the time of Jesus, most people were steeped in Greek philosophical and Roman ideas. For Homer, death was pretty bleak. Hades, the “god of the dead,” was not a nice guy.  The Romans spoke of the ‘hope’ of death, and indeed built temples to the goddess of death, Spes. But death for a Roman was very much filled with this-worldly ideas of the future: peace and security, social stability, crops and harvests, large families and good fortune.

In our time, it has been shown again and again, in study after study, that a primary driving force in human culture is not only an awareness that someday we will die but also the terror or high anxiety about that passage in life that most people feel. For example, have you thought about dying this week? It’s weird and scary, isn’t it?

Yet, along comes Jesus and the Resurrection and, frankly readers, that changes everything! Here are some lessons from the resurrection:

The Resurrection changed our relationship to death. Death’s sting was that either we “were no more” or that we were consigned to the gloom of Sheol/Hades with little hope. Death’s sting is the fear or death-anxiety common to all of humanity. It is through our death-anxiety, that we are held in emotional and spiritual bondage. Even so, those are the realities from which Jesus in and through His resurrection has freed us. You see, if death is an enemy, it is no longer an enemy YOU need fear. When the New Testament (NT) talks about death it is not synonymous with the cause of death, the experience of dying, the moment of death or the grievous aftermath experienced by the survivors. All of these remain most unwelcome, in need and want of God’s compassion, comfort and/or healing. Rather, in the NT death per se relates to the destiny of those who are dead. That destiny is the eternal, loving, and transformational presence of Jesus.

The Resurrection has also changed the nature of death. Jesus shifts in the nature of death in two broad ways:

Death itself has changed. Death used to mean “consigned to the grave” (whatever that meant). Death, as our destiny, shifts radically into an entirely new reality to be embraced because of Jesus. Because of Jesus…because of the resurrection, there is the new death reality, and if that reality IS our reality (through the gift of God’s grace and a growing relationship with Jesus), then this is the truth that inspires us to know that death can actually be embraced. We can embrace death, not as the thing that rips your spirit from your body (the moment), but embraced as the place of joy that lies beyond that moment…beyond the death moment, is awaiting you and me, are everlasting arms and love.

Another interesting issue that the NT asserts is the denial of death altogether. Now, this is a bit technical, so stay with me. The NT does not equate the moment-of-death with death itself. The NT treats death (or ‘perishing’) as something believers will not experience. Here are the verses that highlight this truth:

John 11:25-26 – Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Clearly, Jesus doesn’t mean we won’t experience the moment we call death, but rather, that our destiny is not and never will be death as ‘the grave’ or ‘sheol’ or ‘hades.’ In other words, Jesus says, “That ain’t going to happen to you!”

I would suggest that Jesus does not refer to the moment of death as death. Rather, for Jesus, he usually calls that moment is “falling asleep.” Jesus won’t concede to calling DEATH death because if he holds the keys of death and hades, no one is ultimately stuck there. Being stuck there is the problem that he forever ended.

Finally, what do we do with the reality of the moment-of-death? Do we fight it? Do we embrace it? Is it a friend? Or is it a grotesque curse of the fall that we resist it to the end? Here’s where all this leads – dying is an inevitable reality. Through Jesus’ resurrection, because of Easter, dying is not “death-as-destiny,” it’s simply a process prior to death and our “doorway” into the presence of Jesus.

I propose to you that when you reflect on the NT and the Easter event, that you see death has changed – Jesus sees dying independently from the cause-of-dying. Permit me to explain. There are causes of dying…cancer, heart disease, strokes, car accidents, and a multitude of other reasons that cause death. All of those things, we instinctively want to avoid, prevent, treat and/or cure.  In other words, cancer is never my friend…heart disease is never my friend, etc. We all know this. We automatically oppose these enemies of humanity as did Jesus whenever he encountered them.  He referred to sickness and disease as oppressors and treated them as such.

Now remember the question I started with? Is death now our friend? It seems to me that statement is not talking about embracing either the cause of death nor the state of the grave that Jesus negated (that understanding of death as an afterlife prison of sorts). It seems to primarily be referring to the acceptance of the dying process once it truly begins as a human inevitability. This dying process we accept on the basis of the equally inevitable resurrection aftermath. That is, dying is no longer bound to death, but to our place before the throne of God’s love. If we are bound for a fulfilled or restored or eternal Kingdom of God, then once the cursed cause of death (which we’ve fought in every way through medicine and through prayer) has done its work and we are now truly dying, then instead of fretting and thrashing against that reality, we can practice acceptance and surrender so that dying itself becomes an occasion for a fulfilled experience of Jesus’ presence. You see, we never need to surrender to disease, dying or death because our surrender is always only to Jesus. And it is because of him that death is NOW our friend. Thus on this side of death, we do not need to move from fight-mode against any disease or other reason that brings about death as if we were giving up. But we do need to remind ourselves again and again that there is NEVER a time to ultimately despair when facing death because we never do.  That’s because of the Risen Jesus. You see, my healthy children are given into his care, my granddaughter who struggled with Leukemia is given to his care, my elderly father is given into his care…the people I know facing death, are given into his care.

In my experience, the first order of business to be acted upon through the dying process seems to be “presence.” First, my presence to their situation, to their pain, and to their needs. And secondly, God’s presence throughout that journey, whether it is a healing or dying path. Ultimately, because of God’s grace and Jesus’ victory, the dying process leads to the presence of Jesus…for eternity.

Let me FINALLY close this here – we need not flip-flop between fighting and despairing when facing death because it’s all about the surrender to the presence of Jesus. More than that, we need not focus on the process of dying as our enemy or even as our friend. What we DO need to focus on is the presence of the living Jesus with you and me…with us through every experience…with us from now and through eternity.

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Brokenness…a trying but important journey!

Brokenness-3A flu bug has recently made its way through many of our friend’s lives. It seemed like every day I was hearing about another person who got affected and “infected.” Although usually, news as such inspires prayer and calls/texts of support, it also brings to mind VIVID memories of experiencing illness in my own life.

You know this to be true – everything looks a little different when you’re lying on the bathroom floor. And while I do sometimes find myself wishing I had cleaned the floor a little better, normally the things that take up a lot of my time and attention don’t even come to mind at all when I am sick. Things like unanswered emails, unplanned events, work commitments and all those daily to-dos simple fall right off the radar.

Illness has a way of boiling things down to their basics. When I’m lying on the bathroom floor, it’s just me and God in a way that is rarely true in my everyday life. And although I sometimes do ask God to help me feel better or at least calm the roiling sea in my stomach, often when I’m sick, all I can think to pray is, “Thank you thank you thank you” because there are only certain things that I can learn ONLY when I am “broken.”

No one likes pain. No one purposely goes someplace that is dangerous without first counting the potential cost. To go blindly into an inevitably painful scenario is simply naïve and stupid. Even so, believer after believer in Jesus Christ often expects pain-free living when initiating and growing into spiritual maturity and effectiveness in God’s Kingdom. Yet, we all know reality, don’t we? And when you stare squarely in the face of “reality,” the only viable conclusion that any thoughtful and honest Jesus follower can come to is that struggle and brokenness is going to be real part of the faith experience.

In fact, a man by the name of Parker Palmer once wrote, “when spiritual intimacy is developed in the heart of a sincere Christ-follower, brokenness will be the end result.”

Any denial of the actuality of the brokenness experience will only cause the hurt to entrench itself in a dysfunctional emotional underground that will eventually lead to a variety of potential behaviors. Someone once told me, “you are only as sick as your secrets”. Because of that psycho-spiritual truth, the earnest Christ-follower should pursue a path of vulnerability that leads to an honest wrestling with the dynamic of spiritual brokenness.

Truthfully, every growing disciple must wrestle with the time-honored truth that the change that occurs in the human heart only occurs when it is “mixed lavishly with pain, sorrow, and crushing.” That is what is called, ‘brokenness.” Now, there are many ways that we use the word “brokenness”. We break open bottles of wine…we break a horse…we break into a house or into a box to get to a toy. Look it up online – every definition given, and there were numerous, had to do with no longer being in “working condition”. Words like “weakened, lacking, hurt, imperfect” are woven into the fuller definition of the word. Now, as I looked at that definition, I was first tempted to get discouraged. But then it dawned on me…God wants into the heart and spirit of a disciple…and often being “broken” is the only way that that can happen.

As he worked through the process of his own brokenness, the Apostle Paul actually quotes God as He spoke to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). That is the perfect prototype for God-honoring living.

Brokenness is not a path that we can avoid in our lives. As I mentioned above, sooner or later, we all clock time on the “bathroom floor.” Now, I believed for many years that God could not and would not use a “broken tool.” It was not until I started to embrace my brokenness that I came face to face with the truth…”God’s favorite tools, those servants who are most powerfully His, are those that have been broken.”

Brokenness is where trustworthy and enduring faithfulness is forged.

As Alan Nelson remarks, “As you study different difference makers, you will find that many of them rose out of personal tragedies and overcame personal barriers such as poverty or physical or relational challenges. Tough times are necessary for the production of strong personality traits.”

The bottom line…once you take a serious and comprehensive look at the reality of what Holy Spirit can do in the midst of a broken heart and life, you will undoubtedly and consistently discover that brokenness leads to new faithfulness, new dreams, and bigger visions.

We are all a mess. Yet, spiritual truth reveals to us that we will not be the person God dreams for us to be until we look deep within ourselves, acknowledge and embrace our brokenness and humbly lay it at the feet of Jesus.

Gene Edwards states: “…many people pray for the power of God. More every year. Those prayers sound powerful, sincere, godly and with an ulterior motive. Hidden under such prayer and fervor, however, are ambition, a craving for fame, the desire to be considered a spiritual giant. The man who prays such a prayer may not even know it, but such dark motives and desires are in his heart…in your heart.”

Only when all of our personal and spiritual wounds are replaced by a new life and power in Holy Spirit can we be whole, available and useable for the Kingdom. Until we are able to allow Holy Spirit to perform a spiritual coup d’etat in our hearts, our spiritual fruitfulness and faithfulness will be deterred. Without embracing our brokenness, we will end up not obedient and worship-filled servants of the Kingdom but slaves to our passions and dysfunctions.

God uses people who are humble, teachable, and responsive. God empowers hearts that are tender and open to supernatural indwelling. Because of the depth of human sin…because of the prevailing pride that infects the human spirit…brokenness is the only means of preparing oneself for embracing all that God has in store. Brokenness is not necessarily revealed most vividly through a person’s humility…although often humility is the result of brokenness. Brokenness involves destruction. It is often the way that God allows the reality of the sinful world to work on the heart and spirit of the disciple. God does not cause suffering…but God uses suffering. Suffering is often the “school” of a growing disciple. Suffering is often necessary to accomplish all that God purposes in every person’s life…in other words, our obedience…our submission to the Lord begins at the point of our brokenness. Just as Jesus said in that garden during Holy Week, “not my will, but YOURS be done.”

There are some things that can only happen when a person understands that the only way to be the person God wants us to be is to allow suffering and the vulnerability that accompanies a disclosure of that aspect of a person’s journey to hit us full force. The only way a full heart allegiance is going to be rendered to God is for a complete and total surrender to occur. Only when a person is able to say, “I can’t” will they be able to allow the Spirit of God to heal them. Only then will the “I can’t” transform into a confident, “God can.” Only in brokenness will a disciple move beyond feelings of spiritual entitlement and consumption in order to move into true worship and authentic personal sacrifice.

In actually, brokenness is one of the many complex human experiences that is easier to recognize than to describe. If someone were to use an academic system as a paradigm for describing brokenness, one might say that it is an “upper division” class in the pursuit of Christian maturity. God seeks brokenness in the hearts and lives of His disciples (e.g. Luke 9:24ff, Romans 12:1, Psalm 51:16ff). God knows that most often the avenue to effective spiritual development comes via the pathway of brokenness. It is in brokenness that dependence upon the Lord is shaped…it is by experiencing the “stripes of pain” that we experience the depth of His healing and love!

As this devotional closes, here are some notable quotes on the power and presence of God that is released in our brokenness and humility. May the Lord bless YOU as you gaze into the depths of your soul accompanied by the healing presence of the Spirit of God.

Henri Nouwen once remarked, “The way of the Christian is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”

David once wrote at a time of his own brokenness, “In your strength, I can crush an army; with my God, I can scale any wall” (Psalm 18:29).

“Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time, there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in a success-oriented world.” Henri Nouwen

“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Rabbi Manachem Medel

Ann Voscamp rarely disappoints – advice for crazy people with crazy lives!

I love Ann’s blog – her daily emails challenge me, cause me to think and pray and, generally speaking, always have important truths to share.  Her email today was good and if you haven’t read it, check it out HERE.  And while you are at it, subscribe to her daily emails.  You won’t regret it (or, maybe you will if you LOVE comfort zones, static living, and hard-heartedness).

https://annvoskamp.com/2019/01/crazy-stressed-days-need-this-life-plan-a-manifesto-to-stay-sane/

Yes to this article! Character counts!

69438-homerdohI read many, many blogs..that is something I have shared with you before.  I find blogs honest, challenging and personally encouraging EVEN if I do not agree with the premise or conclusions of a particular post.  THIS week, I read a blog I simply HAVE to share.  It appeared on the “Thinking Out Loud” blog and states some VERY important truths about faithful, Christian character over against “right-ness” or cultural fame.  You may want to scan this important idea!  In fact, it has some things that are included in the post that may get YOU thinking about YOUR life.

When Doctrine overrides Character by Sheila Wray Gregoire

Why is it that Christians have such a difficult time denouncing pastors who have done horrendous things? I have an off-the-wall theory, and I’d like to share it in this thread.

Two incidences this week: Tim Keller offered George Whitefield, the man largely responsible for the legalization of slavery in 18th Century Georgia, as someone to emulate; and Harvest Bible Chapel elders and members continue to support James MacDonald, despite credible accusations of spiritual abuse.

We are told “we can’t judge” and “we all have our failings.” But most of all “He’s such a great preacher!” We live in an age where preaching and doctrine reign, and anyone who has the correct doctrine must, therefore, be a staunch Christian. Yet is this biblical? Let’s take a look.

In Jane Austen’s time, the phrase “Christian charity” was common. It was our love that distinguished us from others. In those days, pretty much everybody “believed” the same thing. What showed that you were a true believer was if you actually lived it out.

Things have changed. First, few believe today. But church trends also elevated belief over practice. [Billy] Graham’s crusades, though amazing, gave the impression that if one said the sinner’s prayer, one would always be right with God. Graham himself lamented the lack of discipleship.

Neo-Calvinism elevated doctrine over anything else, and a church’s preaching became key to its reputation. Then politics fused with Christianity. Christianity became synonymous with a certain viewpoint in the world, cementing the idea that it was about beliefs, not practice.

Today, if you were to ask someone what a Christian was, they would echo, “someone who believes X and Y.” The idea of “Christian charity” being our distinguishing characteristic has largely gone by the wayside.

Yet what does the Bible say? Jesus said they would know us by our love. James said faith without works is dead. Works do not save us; but works show that we truly are saved. Many people believe the Christian tenets and preach Christian doctrine for entirely the wrong reasons.

Paul admitted this—some preach Christ out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (Phil. 1:15). James said that even the demons believe—and shudder. A person can preach excellent sermons and write amazing books, but that says little about whether they have the Spirit of Christ in them.

Yes, God saves us through our belief in the saving work of Christ. But what makes our faith REAL is that it changes us. Until the church stops idolizing the person who simply preaches an amazing sermon and teaches the right doctrine, we will never get back to the heart of Christ.

If the gospel does not change how you act—if it does not affect your view of marginalized people; if it does not make it unthinkable to yell at a restaurant server; if it does not compel you to give—then ask yourself if you are believing for the wrong reasons.

And then tremble.

*Sheila Wray Gregoire is a published author with Zondervan, Kregel and Waterbrook Press and is a featured speaker at women’s events. Her blog deals with marriage, family and parenting issues and is called To Love Honor and Vaccum.

Why we need people…not only in family, life’s journey, friendship…but in “church”

2https://www.christianitytoday.com/karl-vaters/2018/october/worship-anywhere-why-church.html?paging=off

Check that link out above!  Karl Vaters is a fellow clergy guy…he writes not only a blog but a regular column for Christianity Today.  He is a “champion” for “small church” in an age that “worships” the large gatherings of mega-institutionalism.  The article is worth the read but the HEART of it is here:

“I don’t go to church to worship Jesus. I go to church to worship Jesus with other people. Because I need to worship Jesus in the company of others. We all do.

I need to worship Jesus along with…

  • People I know
  • People I don’t know
  • People who know me
  • People I share life with
  • People I share common beliefs with
  • People I disagree with
  • People who love me anyway
  • People I have to love anyway”

I couldn’t agree more!

Some “Habits of the Home”

1Habits of the Home

Today I want to share some small things that you can do in your home with your family, no matter what the size. These are great habits that can continue to solidify your commitment to building a Jesus-centered home.

1. Family Verse. Every week, month or even year, your family can choose a verse from the Bible and then recite the family verse at Sunday dinner. For example, one family chose Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.”

2. Fishbowl Prayers. I think it is a good habit to make a point of adding some type of intercessory prayer at meals to make sure we make a habit of focusing outwardly as a family towards other people’s needs. I don’t do it 100% of the time because a) I’m generally hungry and b) I can’t often think of things to pray for on the spot. I read a story about a pastor who figured out an easy way to handle this by keeping a fishbowl in the kitchen. The family is invited to write prayer requests on cards or slips of paper and place them in the bowl. At meals, a member of the family pull one out at random and pray for that person/situation.

3. “One Meal” Fasting. In my personal life, I try to fast one meal sometime every week. No, I’m not Catholic. But it’s a practice I think makes a lot of sense for Protestants too, which is why I’m including it here. Why? First, fasting is a “time-honored” spiritual discipline and tradition that is BIBLICAL and theologically sound. It’s something we can all do together as families. Second, many Christians around the world do still fast from meat on Friday, so there’s also a greater sense of corporate fasting as the body of Christ. Third, the practice of fasting is ancient. Why reinvent the wheel when there’s something we can do that Christians have always done? We’ve been very good at keeping this fast, though it isn’t fully meeting my expectations yet in terms of focusing our minds on the things of God.

4. Thanks Log. I’m going to start keeping a “thanks log” in 2019. Whenever something good happens in my life, I am going to try to append a dated bullet point about it in an MS-Word document. I don’t want to make this a huge chore or burden, but I want to start compiling a list of “thank you God’s.”. It’s amazing the sheer number of things that go right in our lives on a daily basis that we don’t really remember or take stock of. Re-reading some of these periodically always helps keep me in a thankful and humble frame of mind.

None of these is earth-shattering or totally unique I know. That’s the point. They are just simple, small habits. But there’s no reason not to do small things as well as large ones.

What about you? Have any good habits from your home you’d like to share? Email them to rdugall@apu.edu because we need to be sharing what we’ve learned and what works with other people.

This is actually TOO GOOD to not bring to your attention!

2I get all sorts of emails…some, or I should say MOST, welcomed…others not so much.  This “online magazine” has articles that never seem to disappoint.  Here is an article that I read this morning that is simply great.  Do I agree with every sentence?  Well, maybe not but, overall, it SO works!  Are you interested in “church?”  Are you NOT interested in “church?”  Here is a good article that will challenge you either way.  It may look trite for me to simply say, “I like it” but that’s the truth!

 

CHOOSING CHURCH
There are lots of reasons to avoid church, but here are the reasons to look again.

Appears in Fall 2017 Issue: A Church for the World
by Marilyn McEntyre

Some of us remember Enid Strict, the infamous and wildly popular “church lady” played by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live. Enid was a caricature of the busybody finger-shaking moralist no one would want to share a pew with. Her routines included condemnations of all things sexual, judgments on the rich and famous, and a little “superior dance” she performed to music played by an organist named Pearl. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit to having watched SNL, let alone laughed at the antics of the church lady. But I did. I have also shared Jane Austen’s wry amusement at the Reverend Mr. Collins’s obsequious panderings and laughed out loud at Stella Gibbons’s portrayal of Amos Starkadder, pastor of the Church of the Quivering Brethren in Cold Comfort Farm, who delivers stock hellfire sermons in Scottish brogue. Figures like these continue to amuse readers and viewers by exposing the false pieties and self-serving practices of Christians at their worst.

Caricatures of Christians and their churches go back to Chaucer and beyond, some finding their inspiration in the Gospels themselves, where Jesus not only rebukes the Pharisees but also makes them look ridiculous. We’re an easy target. Churches have never occupied an altogether comfortable place in culture, even where they have borne the state’s imprimatur. North American churches, shaped by settlers who imported their own, sometimes unorthodox versions of ecclesial practices, have been home to outliers, autodidacts, and undisciplined zealots. Frontier congregations found their relationship to Rome, Wittenberg, and Canterbury stretched and thinned by distance and the unceremonious necessities of survival. American churches bear the shame of having sanctioned slavery and even genocide.

You take a second look at them as you reach out to exchange with them a peace that sometimes passes understanding.

Yet churches have survived the potshots of satirists and, more consequential, internal disorders and diseases that have afflicted them for centuries: pride, envy, anger, avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth—just to review the short list. A lot of them not only survive, but also thrive. Many are repositories of great spiritual wealth hidden behind flaking paint and dated amber windows. They are a last resort for people who have tried bars, bowling leagues, service clubs, and block parties and still find themselves lonely and directionless. They offer surprises to people who come as pallbearers to their mother’s funeral only to find themselves wanting, for reasons they can’t quite name, to return the following week. They preserve language that lifts the mind out of the muddy waters of media-speak and into unnerving encounter with the Word that was in the beginning. Some of them. Not all of them.

By virtue of moving around a good bit, I’ve had occasion over the years to visit churches, choose among them, and change my mind occasionally. What I want and need from church now isn’t at all what I hoped for at fifteen, when I spent Sunday evenings in earnest Bible study with the youth group, or at twenty, when I emerged from years of camp songs into the quiet dignities of liturgical worship, or at thirty, when I found deep respite in the sturdy silence and simple practices of Quakers. There were stretches of time when, afflicted with church fatigue, I didn’t go at all. I was a cradle churchgoer, child of missionary parents, and the very idea of sleeping in, reading the Times in my pyjamas, and heading out for a Sunday morning bike ride was both tempting and unsettling. Ultimately, it was unsatisfying, so I returned, but my stretch of churchless Sundays did give me some understanding of and sympathy for the inertias that keep people away from church.

There are a number of reasons not to go to church. At risk of stating the obvious, here are a few:

Some churches are clubby and exclusionary. They have a house style. Long-time parishioners know all the moves, liturgical and social. They refer to their favourite person of the Trinity in a socially correct way. There appears to be a dress code. They shake hands with visitors at the “coffee hour,” but don’t exhibit much real curiosity about what might have brought them there. The dominant demographic is painfully apparent. Those who don’t fit the profile might consider going elsewhere.

Some churches offer easy, oversimplified preachments that provide scant help to those grappling with the complexities of contemporary life. Sermons tend to reiterate familiar condensations of the gospel message, but only the parts of it that pertain to a rather insular range of concerns, with a heavy emphasis on comfort rather than challenge. The intention seems to be that people leave feeling affirmed, though it also seems likely that some leave feeling hungry, restless, and unsatisfied.

Some churches’ efforts to be relevant lure them into imitating popular culture in language, music, and technology, all rather less effectually than their secular counterparts. Sometimes this involves screens and electric guitars. Sometimes it involves adults attempting awkwardly to sing along with swaying high school vocalists. Sometimes it involves banners and slogans. Some notion of a common denominator appears to determine worship style, but the result is a confused mix of media and a diluted message.

Some churches are boring. Their sermons, websites, and congregational enterprises tend toward the predictable. They play it so safe, seeking not to offend anyone anywhere on the political or theological spectrum, that they become lukewarm. And we know what Jesus does to the lukewarm.

Some churches are partisan. They support candidates and single-issue voting. Rather than nuanced reflection on doctrine they become doctrinaire.

The list is depressing. I edited it down. But here’s the thing: the list of reasons to go to church is longer and more interesting. Compelling, even. It’s a list I’d be glad to share with the cynical, the indifferent, and the uninformed. It’s not an indiscriminate invitation to hasten out next Sunday seeking the nearest steeple, but a challenge to find, even if it takes some church-hopping, those places where the Spirit is working quiet wonders among ordinary people. Here are five reasons, not necessarily in order of importance, I would give the reluctant and the skeptical to check out church, despite their reservations:

A healthy church will help you get over yourself. One of the primary aims of good preaching is to invite us into a story much larger than our own. In a healthy church, conversation about what the privileged owe the poor will be made local and urgent every time the story of the rich young ruler is read. Personal wealth and the wealth of the nation will be re-examined with a critical eye every time the parable of “bigger barns” comes up, or the camel squeezing through the eye of a needle. Shared prayers of thanksgiving will not only reflect but also awaken gratitude. In a healthy church people’s needs are made known and other people organized to help meet those needs—deacons, elders, volunteers who take food to the housebound or take people who can’t drive to doctors’ appointments. In a healthy church you begin to recognize yourself as someone with gifts to give—time, money, energy, expertise—and you begin to want to give them, because the grace that comes with giving is suddenly so startlingly apparent. You find a compassionate curiosity growing in you that leads you into conversation with people you might otherwise have avoided. You take a second look at them as you reach out to exchange with them a peace that sometimes passes understanding.

In an urban church we attended for a time homeless people came regularly to worship. Some were disruptive; one mumbled, one snored, one wandered around the back of the sanctuary. They were familiar folks who weren’t getting nearly the help they needed. One was unwashed, and smelled. Sharing a pew with him was challenging, but when he happened to sit close by the thought never failed to occur to me that next to him is exactly where Jesus would be. By choice.

It may not seem that acknowledging guilt would be a particularly attractive reason to attend church, but you find, if you do it, that it’s amazingly restorative.

God loves you with infinite, unconditional love, we learn in church, but to experience that love fully, you have to get over yourself—excessive concern with your own welfare, your own family, your own ambitions or failures. When you enter into the life of a church, you are freed to be a servant. It is true that you can discover the joy of generosity and service elsewhere. But healthy churches are reliable places to find those opportunities, every week at the back of the bulletin or in the newsletter or on the website, to witness the fruits of the Spirit, who brings humble efforts to fruition, and to be reminded by story, song, and your neighbour’s example what Christlike looks like.

A healthy church will allow you to acknowledge guilt and experience forgiveness. As Toni Morrison’s wonderful character Baby Suggs puts it to her congregation, here you can come to “lay it all down.” It may not seem that acknowledging guilt would be a particularly attractive reason to attend church, but you find, if you do it, that it’s amazingly restorative. Most of us carry around guilt like a stone in a pocket. Sometimes you get so used to its weight you stop even noticing it. So it can take a long time, if you’re leading what seems to be a decent and innocuous life, to get to a place where guilt becomes pain and you long for forgiveness.

When you do get there, a healthy church is a good place to go. Of course, the first place to go might be to those you’ve offended, to ask directly for forgiveness or make amends. Jesus endorses that bit of common sense, as does every Twelve-Step program. But if those you have offended have died, or are unavailable, or if your guilt has metastasized into pervasive unease or a troubling awareness of complicity in culture-wide injustice, it requires a different kind of healing—one pastors and priests are trained to help with. In churches one may discover how significantly pastoral care differs from psychotherapy, and why one might need both.

Guilt is hard to release on your own. I’m often puzzled when I hear well-intentioned advice to “forgive yourself,” since in my experience that would be a lot like pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. When I do manage to “forgive myself,” it looks suspiciously like rationalization. I can shift the stone from one pocket to the other and relieve the stress on one aching muscle, but it’s not the same as “laying it all down.”

Until you’ve tried it, it’s hard to imagine the complete release that can come with full, open-hearted confession. And though the act of corporate confession repeated weekly in many churches may seem rote, speaking it creates an opening in the heart that widens over time into willingness, even eagerness to be “cleansed,” released, forgiven, and to find that energy begins to flow again that has been tied up in the arduous business of ego-protection and self-deception.

It’s certainly possible to give and receive forgiveness without benefit of church. But within the church a dimension of forgiveness is taught and practiced that is peculiar to Christian worship. Forgiveness, as the church understands it, is a mystery: we are, as Luther put it, simul justus et peccator—completely justified, and completely sinful. The forgiveness Christ offered and the church makes available is absolute. Though there may be work to do on a human level, once we are “clothed” in Christ’s righteousness, we can walk in freedom, straight to those places where we have amends to make, and make them with lighter and more hopeful hearts. We can afford to confess because confession doesn’t mire us in shame, but lifts us into sure and certain hope and a life of gratitude.

These are theological truths that can only be grasped in faith, but they’re worth exploring even for the unbeliever, especially when therapy has worn thin and relationships are frayed and you find yourself pretty sick of your own addictive habits. Kneeling in a healthy church and reading with others that we have sinned “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone” may both reframe the pain of guilt and relieve it.

One form of confession seems to me an especially rich reflection on the nature of sin (a word we’re unlikely these days to hear spoken without irony anywhere outside the church). It includes these lines:

We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve only your will. The first time I heard it, I thought of the drone strikes, white-collar crime, and shady corporate practices I like to condemn, and took instant account of my own complicity. One dimension of sin is the general pollution we all live with. I look at smokestacks spewing toxins into industrial communities or at contaminated rivers or orchards where pesticides leave residues on human skin and realize that the “goods” I take for granted involve me in evils I need to recognize—not with personal shame, perhaps, but with determination to work, once I am “forgiven, restored, and strengthened,” to help stop the harm and heal the earth we share. These concerns are large and weighty. A healthy church equips us to tolerate an awareness that could be crushing if we tried to sustain it all alone and then to act.

A healthy church will invite you into countercultural community. It won’t be an extension program in civil religion. It won’t (and I know there are faithful folk who disagree) fly the national flag in the sanctuary. It won’t stamp its seal of approval on “our way of life,” whatever that has come to mean to comfortable North Americans. It will “afflict” the comfortable. It won’t offer cheap grace. It will help you share—and want to share—accountability for practices that affect the vulnerable. It will expand the repertoire of questions you raise about what is “normal” in the culture you inhabit. A healthy church will look at norms with a critical eye, holding them up to the light of Christ, which involves deep reading of Scripture and deep engagement with biblical ethics. It will lift you out of your cultural landscape enough to take a long, even transcendent, view of it. It will lead you to identify with and act on behalf of the disempowered—migrant workers, prisoners, people with no health insurance, people whose lands and water have been expropriated or contaminated, underpaid labourers, victims of domestic abuse. The list goes on. A healthy church will have the conversation and invite you into it. It will provide you with dates and local leaders and action plans. It will teach you to pray as you go.

Some churches are sanctuaries where immigrants and undocumented workers can find safety and compassionate help while they figure out survival strategies. Some churches participate in projects organized by Habitat for Humanity or the International Rescue Committee or local homeless shelters. Some organize their own versions of such endeavours. One example of imaginative, humble service is our church’s taking over a laundromat once a month, arriving with stacks of quarters, letting it be known that homeless folks can get two loads of laundry washed and folded while they wait. Some pack lunches. Some repair and distribute bikes. Some supplement medical care through parish nursing. The list is long. Many of these things are being done outside churches, of course, but when church people do them, even if they say nothing about Jesus, and often they don’t, the love, humility, convicted consciences, and real joy in service that animates their efforts rarely goes unnoticed.

On Sundays, and they are not infrequent, when I don’t really feel like getting dressed and going to church, but do it anyway, I invariably leave with a gift I could not have foreseen.

Where government falls short, the church often steps in. If you look into the “breach,” wherever it gapes, you’re likely to find church people who have leapt into it once more.

A healthy church will give you access to a treasury of words and music. It will bring you into a centuries-old conversation that includes the whole “communion of saints.” Where else are you likely to encounter words like “blessing” or “grace” or “parable” or “holy” or, for that matter, “shibboleth” or “Sabaoth”? Where else are you likely to encounter a conversation that takes you to the ancient world and back, bearing gifts for the present, sometimes wrapped in antique language?

Among the most memorable sermons I’ve heard are a few that focused on a single word or phrase from Hebrew or Greek. One drew attention to the word schizomeno—meaning in Greek “ripped open.” It occurs twice in the Gospels: once when the temple veil is torn the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The other is when “the heavens opened” upon Christ’s baptism. But they didn’t just “open.” They were ripped open. God broke into history with a voice and an act of salvation unlike any other. The drama of that moment would be easy to overlook without the guidance of someone who struggled through seminary Greek in order to help us read more deeply the challenging, mysterious, much-maligned text we call holy.

In that text the church is guardian of a cultural treasure like no other. There are sacred texts in other traditions, to be sure, worth study and reflection. But this one is unique in its multiplicity of sources, its rich, ragged stories, sometimes riddled with gaps, its many literary genres, in the way it gives access to a God who will not be reduced to human dimensions and in the simple fact that it’s a taproot of Western culture. It is the source of archetypes, conceptual structures, metaphors, and mythic symbols that give our psychological and social lives shape and depth. Seventy-five translations of the Bible still exist in English. One can spend many months in Bible study considering what difference the differences among them make.

To study the Bible with people of faith is to see it not only as an object of academic or antiquarian interest but also as a living word, a source of intellectual challenge, inspiration, comfort, uncomfortable ambiguities, and endless insights for people who gather in willingness to accept what seems to be God’s invitation: Wrestle with this. Healthy churches wrestle, working out their salvation over coffee and concordances, knowing there is nothing pat or simple about the living Word, but that it invites us into subtle, supple, resilient relationship with the Word made flesh who dwells, still, among us.

Healthy churches are places of divine encounter. The disenchanted who have suffered from warped pieties and the skeptical who haven’t met a believer who meets their standards of intellectual integrity may simply not believe this. Nor might a person who has a thriving meditation practice rooted in non-Christian tradition: it’s become distressingly easy to point to churches that don’t, in fact, foster the silence, contemplative practices, or sustained, unstinting prayer that deepens and widens awareness beyond rationality or convention. But a healthy church does those things. It provides a place, a way, an invitation, and a sacred space in which, if you come with an open heart, you may find yourself, in spite of yourself, practicing the presence of God.

Singing is one way to “enter into God’s courts.” Few places are left where people gather and sing. Yet neuroscientists say that singing together promotes integration of brain functions, alleviates depression, and promotes mental health. When we sing we learn viscerally and audibly what it means to be “one in the Spirit.”

Hearing sacred texts read aloud also brings us into alignment with others who inhabit the same story. It is our story—all of ours—available to be entered and explored like a great territorial preserve. I have sometimes found that hearing a familiar phrase read aloud—”Be not afraid,” or “Come and see,” for instance—suddenly emerges in the context of a service as personal address. We gather in church because private, silent reading is not enough: we need to hear the living word breathed by a human voice.

And the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion—whatever name it is given in a particular denominational tradition—has become, for me, Protestant that I am, the moment of encounter I most eagerly await when I go to church. When I walk forward and kneel at the Communion rail, though other ways of receiving the sacrament have their logic and legitimacy, I make, each time, a new act of consent to God’s invitation to participate in divine life. I am reminded again of the shocking intimacy expressed in the words “This is my body. Take. Eat.” The message each time seems to me something like, “Do you get it now? How utterly I enter into your very being, your body and breath, to make you a Christ-bearer?”

I know a number of people who hesitate to talk about Jesus or Christ, but are comfortable with the term “Christ-consciousness,” meaning a higher state of awareness and awakedness to divine presence within and all around. Many mystics have testified to extraordinary moments of vision, transport, being subsumed in the Light, filled with the Spirit, empowered in sudden, inexplicable ways. As far as I know, none of them, Christian or non-Christian, has experienced the benefit of such experiences without two prerequisites: humility and community. We gather in churches because our combined will and willingness, our collective energy, our voices attuned and our attention directed toward God, enable something to happen that is far less likely to happen alone or at random.

Distracted, reluctant, confused, or apathetic you may be on any given Sunday, but if you go, something will happen. A word, a phrase, a flicker of candlelight, a gesture, an image, an extended moment of silence—all these have their effects. On Sundays, and they are not infrequent, when I don’t really feel like getting dressed and going to church, but do it anyway, I invariably leave with a gift I could not have foreseen. It’s not always the sermon—a good sermon is hard to find. And sometimes the readers read poorly or the person behind me can’t stop coughing or someone won’t take the crying baby outside. But underneath the distractions and irritations runs a current so strong it carries me in spite of myself. I float in mighty waters.

Not all churches are alike. Not all churches are healthy. The troubles that afflict unhealthy churches are nothing new: they are dishevelled or diseased or fatigued or torn by infighting. But even those churches contain within themselves the seeds of renewal. They aren’t simply dying institutions, irrelevant and poorly run; they are cell and tissue of the body of Christ. Within them people we may not enjoy but must engage with are, in very fact, brothers and sisters who belong to us and to whom we belong by a tie stronger than blood. All of us who labour and are heavy laden come to receive “the gifts of God for the people of God” and find that God’s people are also ours.

Yes, it is simply an “I love it” article

From a website dedicated to being an “apprentice” of Jesus – aka Disciple:

Goodness Gracious
By: Keas Keasler

When was the last time you teared up watching a movie, not out of sadness, but because you were inspired? In the opening scene of the 1998 film Les Misérables, a criminal named Jean Valjean is brought by the authorities before an old bishop. A day or so earlier, the bishop had opened his home to this man and provided him with a warm meal and a bed to sleep on, only to be taken advantage of and robbed by him in the middle of the night. Now the man has been caught and, as they say, the chickens have come home to roost. Surely he will be sent back to prison and locked up for another twenty years. Yet instead of condemning Valjean and retrieving his stolen goods, the bishop offers him the silver candlesticks he had “forgotten” and lets him go free.

Although I’ve seen the film several times, this scene always leaves me all choked up. This unexpected and astonishing act of goodness on the part of the bishop moves me beyond words. “Goodness gracious” is a proper way to describe it, for goodness and graciousness conspired in a way that changed Valjean forever. It also left its mark on me. When I first saw the movie I remember thinking to myself, “I want to be like that old bishop.”

In his new book The Magnificent Story, James Bryan Smith looks at the story of the gospel through the lens of what are often called the three transcendentals – beauty, goodness, and truth. In my opinion, beauty and truth are more readily identifiable, but what exactly is goodness? Smith defines goodness as “that which works for the benefit or betterment of others.” That which is good makes us better, builds us up, and inspires us. And the power of goodness is its ability to benefit all who encounter it – even those who only witness it or hear about it.

The latest findings in science confirm this. Neurologists say our brains are chemically wired to reward us for performing acts of kindness and generosity. It only takes a small act of generosity for oxytocin to be released in the brain—and oxytocin is most people’s favorite chemical. It’s what makes us feel warm and fuzzy. It is also an antidote to depression. And here’s the thing: not only does the person performing an act of kindness get a shot of oxytocin: so does the person on the receiving end of the act. Even someone who merely witnesses the act of kindness gets a shot of the feel-good chemical. Just seeing or hearing about human acts of generosity inspires us to want to do the same. It would appear that God has structured human life in such a way that goodness is contagious.

I’ll mention one more movie that had me teary-eyed and inspired. In The Two Towers, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo and Sam are engaged in a long, hard struggle against the dark powers of Mordor. At a certain point it appears that all might be lost. Frodo is exhausted and at the end of his rope, but Sam reminds him that all great stories have heroes who found something to hold onto when others would have given up. Frodo then asks, “What do we have to hold onto?” To which Sam replies, “That there’s some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for.”

Those words grabbed me so tightly that I could feel my eyes starting to sting and my cheeks growing warm. Why? Because the great temptation today, living in a broken world with so much confusion and pain, is to become calloused and even cynical about what we see around us. It’s easy to become resigned to the way things are. Yet the beautiful, good, and true story of the gospel begs to differ. The gospel declares that God has not given up on this world but is at work healing and restoring it. The gospel insists that there is good in this world, and that it’s worth fighting for.

And as Smith reminds us in The Magnificent Story, we have a place in this story, too. “We were made not merely to hear it,” he writes, “but to be in it.” The gospel is an invitation to enter into this divine drama and join God in spreading his gracious goodness. Will we do so?