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New JerusalemI have read (Bible Study Tools on Jerusalem) that there was a time that Jerusalem was invincible. I can certainly understand how that could happen, just thinking of the miraculous creation of the temple and the tangible presence of God there, how could any enemy prevail?

Jerusalem is built like a city joined together in unity . . . It is the law for Israel to give thanks there . . . Pray that Jerusalem has peace: “Let those who love you have rest. Let there be peace on your walls; let there be rest on your fortifications.” [Psalm 122:3, 4b, 6-7, CEB]

But not unlike the confidence in the Titanic, the unsinkable ship of wonder and power, people abused the vessel itself. The Temple was the core of Jerusalem, it’s lifeblood issued from its center, but the leaders and kings continued to misunderstand its role, the basic requirements of worship and faithfulness. As a result, they began to undercut its effectiveness. So it was with the great ship whose design was flawed and never fully tested, whose strength was challenged by boasting and unnecessary risk. Both Jerusalem and the Titanic suffered due to the pride of its caretakers.

And I wonder, are we doing the same thing with our religion? Are we borrowing from the texts the parts we want to use as a hammer against others and setting aside the words that condemn our own actions? Are we elevating our own understanding above the understanding of others? Are we so sure in the details?

And what about the Church itself? Have denominations and preferences become silos from which we are no longer able to see clearly? Now we have a myriad of “Jerusalems” into which we are endowing superiority and funds for the sake of our structures and mindsets.

God promises the earth, the peoples of this earth, a “New Jerusalem.” I do not believe that this is necessarily a humongous cube that will drop down out of space (the heavens) and we’ll all take a ride. Instead, I see it as a unified peoples, living for the sake of others, honoring humanity and the God who made us. The New Jerusalem comes at a cost, the paradox of letting go and surrendering to a different way of living and thinking.

Jesus was on a mission to bring us closer to the New Jerusalem. We’re not there yet. We may have to sink the ship a few more times before we are able to build a structure that can be inhabited by Truth.

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givingCan you imagine it? The call had gone out to all the Israelites to contribute freely to the building of the Tabernacle, an extensive list of what was needed from gold to silver to bronze and precious jewels and fabrics. And over time, they collected more than enough. The people had to be restrained from giving more. What minister or leader wouldn’t mind being in that situation?

Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work. [Exodus 36:6-7, NIV]

But that would be rare indeed. Instead, the issue of giving seems to be the bane of every organization, whether religious or secular. There never seems to be enough money to go around. Is it the lack of money really or is the projects we are hoping to fund? Are there more good ideas than there are resources?

Back in those days, there was only one primary task before them: the building of the Tabernacle and setting up the tools and arena for worshiping the God; that same God who saved them in the desert, who brought them out of Egypt, who showed them miracle after miracle. And in their midst, the evidence of God was still quite present: the cloud during the day and the fire at night.

What do we have? We have many, many good causes raising the call for donations. Many churches are also looking to build their buildings or their programs, to expand their reach, to broadcast their message. Humanitarians are looking to ease the burdens of hunger and poverty, inequalities and tragic losses. Those affected, either directly or indirectly, are raising consciousness about various diseases that need more research or children dying unnecessarily. Others are fighting causes to protect the unprotected, the weak or the disadvantaged. And still others are fighting for funds to raise brighter, stronger, smarter, and more valiant children, the next generation to whom a troubled world is being inherited. And still others are simply looking to brighten our world with beauty, art, and music, but lack the means to be effective.

All of these enterprises have value, some for many and some for only a few. Where do I put my energy? Where do I put my funds? To whom do I commit my dollars? My time? How do I choose? And what portion is appropriate? Is it just the sacred tithe of ten percent or more? What does my own family require or not?

I think sacrificial giving, which has become a real buzzword in the church, is a dangerous misnomer. It implies a painful aspect, giving beyond what one is comfortable giving. It implies that one’s own needs may not be met in the face of giving for the sake of another. The sacrifice is not in the giving itself but in the heart. It is giving out of commitment and belief that the gift will matter and will make a difference.

Giving may do better with intent and outcome. I mean, anyone can give a dollar to a homeless person on the street and feel some relief but the bigger picture has not been touched by the gift. If my heart is sincere about this person’s needs or situation, then the gift must go deeper and further. It simply must or it’s just a spray of pennies.

When the Israelites gave for the building of their Tabernacle, they knew that the one gold bracelets would be melted into the ton of gold that was used to cover the poles and the Ark and the table. They saw the gold every day and knew, one fraction was theirs. And it was theirs too. They gave out of a passion for the place in which God was present.

Passionate giving has power.

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make a wayWe all were. Sent ahead. In some cases, that is more obvious than in others, but if you think about it, we can each lay a path or new ground for our descendants and loved ones.

But God sent me [Joseph] ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. [Genesis 45:7, NIV]

My mother and father left Europe and came to America and worked hard for the sake of their children and a new life. My mother’s mother left her village in Lithuania to go to Riga to experience city life. In my own life, bouncing from city to city, I eventually landed with a husband and a home here in Maryland and drew three orphaned children to us from Latvia and St. Petersburg, Russia, their lives forever changed.

We can each make a way. We can cut the brambles to the best of our ability so that others can walk behind.

But of course, some people refuse. The road ahead seems too difficult, too overwhelming. And so they sit in what small space they can carve out and wait. Reminds me of the parable of the “talents.” Three servants were entrusted with wealth to invest for the Master while he journeyed away. Two took risks and plunged ahead. But the one merely buried what he was given and although he returned it all, he had made not change or increase.

Humans are given gifts as well as challenges that make us who we are but also help make us what God intends. It is not about the money but about the attitude, the response to life’s events, accepting the truth of what is and making the very best of what that truth can contribute.

This process is true for organizations as well as individuals. Churches, in particular, have a mission to reach out to those stagnant souls who have lost their will or hope toward the next step. The Church, the Body of Christ, can do corporately what cannot always be done by the one. But it must be done in unity and love.

Look back: who is following you? Whose steps are landing in your footprints?

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Body of Christ 2I like putting jigsaw puzzles together. My family thinks this hobby is one of the lamest activities of all time. The only other person who enjoys them is my brother when he visits for the holidays or comes along to the beach.

Usually, it’s just me and a thousand little pieces. And yet slowly, even the most difficult puzzle, will come together. A whole emerges from all the slivers. I love putting in that last piece, always with a breath of satisfaction. But nothing is worse than a missing piece: disappeared as the result of cat sprawl or a son and his pizza box.

All the pieces are needed, even the seemingly identical blue ones from the sky or the monotonous gray from the shadows. A finished picture is ruined by the loss of even one small fragment. It doesn’t matter where the gap lies in the puzzle, it’s loss is felt, the eye straying to the tiny abyss.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.  [I Corinthians 12:24b-27, The Voice translation]

If I can understand this concept in a puzzle, why is it so hard to really embrace the idea when it comes to the Body of Believers? Is it just because some (most) are different from me? Can’t I suspend my judgments long enough to allow them to play out their role, their part in the “God Scheme” of things?

Wretched truly am I.

When I start working on a puzzle, I usually tackle it the same way every time: edge pieces first, then I look for the most vibrant colors or stand out images in the overall picture, then I look for patterns and long lines, and slowly, my box of remaining pieces becomes more and more monochromatic.

This is how I must look at the Body too. I am easily drawn to the people with clearly defined gifts and abilities, then there are the very talented ones who shine in any group, and then there are the organized ones who work to bring order out of chaos. But the rest become a blur.

In a puzzle, in order to figure out where the same color pieces go, it’s a matter of looking for a tiny, but identifiable mark or a specific shape that will only snug up to its likely friends.

I need to give much more attention to Body who have been indistinguishable. It’s time to honor their individuality by even the smallest gift because everyone has something to give to community. And as each gift comes forward, something beautiful begins to emerge. And soon, it’s not just flat sky, but clouds and mist and rain even. It’s time to look. It’s time to honor the pieces of the whole and give thanks for them.

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Jesus and the crossWhen he [Judas] was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him,God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” [John 13:31-35]

Surely they were all thinking that, “Where are you going, Jesus, that I can’t go? Haven’t we gone everywhere with you?” Well, except for all those times he went to pray alone or that time he walked on the water or that time he brought Lazarus from the dead or the time he overturned the tables of the moneychangers?

I think the real question they asked in those times may have been more like, “What are you doing?”

Isn’t that the natural response to someone (particularly a child/teen) who is participating some activity that is outside one’s personal “norm?” Or worse, illegal? Or worse, stupid! “What are you doing!?” It’s as though we actually believe, that perpetrator will turn around, look at us, and see the light! “Oh, of course, I shouldn’t be doing this.”

But that’s not how it works. Rarely does the observer, the other person get what is going on, whether it’s using a beer pong in your parents’ basement or predicting one’s death at the hand of the authorities. Or maybe it’s even less clear, like a toddler artistically decorating the hallway walls or a dog marking the new furniture or a kid experimenting with a raw egg in the microwave.

In that moment of discovery, it’s chaos in the head. How could, why would, when did, where did, who’s idea was this anyway?

As much as Jesus tried to explain how it would all work, the understanding of the acts, the miracles, the symbols, the sacrifices, the lectures, the parables, all of it… came later. There was too much to process. They’d be contemplating that event from the morning and then something else would happen at Noon. How do you respond to a miracle? How do you respond to a man who claims blood line with God? How do you believe that the same guy who raised people from the dead would die himself? Brain freeze.

When any pair of friends or now, children of friends, tell me they are planning to get married, I have one piece of advice: really look and remember. It will pass by you like a whirlwind and the next thing you know, the ceremony is over, the reception is over, and you’re sitting in at the pool or beach and wondering what just happened. It’s hard to pay attention when it’s happening to us!

The disciples and writers of Jesus’s life did the best they could. They tried to capture what it felt like not to understand, what it meant in the moment without projecting out to the end.

Today, I want to imagine the moment, the feeling of the first time, the loss of Jesus without the expectation of third day. But I also want to cherish human contact today, the touch of a hand, the look in the eye, the corporateness of faith.

I want to love God and love others.

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Anointing His Feet 2
by Wayne Forte

Worship, in English, can mean to “declare worth.” That’s comfortable. However, in the original Greek, proskynéō means to kiss the ground while falling prostrate to a superior. When was the last time you fell to your knees before someone or something of such awesome worth or value?

Revelation 22:8b-9
I [John] fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them [the prophecies] to me. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”

The angel is saying to John, don’t fall down before me, but fall down before the One God, individually and corporately.

In some ways, the Muslim expression of worship is more in keeping with the intent of the word. Other faiths like the Orthodox denominations, Catholics, and some Eastern religions practice deep bowing and submissive movements. In recent years, some charismatic believers have found their deepest experience of prayer when it is coupled with lying prone, face down.

But most of us have lost the physicality of worship. A high church may still have kneelers (to make the submissive act more agreeable) but generally, the most common form of respect is standing up, not kneeling. Some church congretations stand to sing and some stand to pray while still others stand to hear a gospel passage spoken. There are denominations who do lots of standing up and sitting down (with a kneel or two in between) and there are denominations who have made the standing part optional, for those who find standing difficult.

And yet, for little children, the cliche for night time prayers is on the knees at the side of the bed. Perhaps even that has gone a bit out of style, I don’t really know, although figurines still abound with cherub children, hands sweetly folded, and eyes closed. It’s sweet. It’s innocent. But is it worship? Is it prayer? Is it surrender? Why do we encourage children to do this kneeling bit but not we ourselves?

In more contemporary churches, worship has come t mean the singing part of a service: a series of songs, starting with fast praise and then followed by a gradual slow down into devotional melodies and words of adoration. And repetition has become a sign of a deeper experience.

I’m not putting any of these “expressions” down. I faithfully attend a contemporary church. I’m right in there.

But, if I take any time at all to think about it, I do find most forms of Western worship to be very predictable and perhaps, if truth be told, a bit colorless and watered down. We keep boiling down the experience of worship into the most common denominator. Whether the service is a lively 60 minutes or a filibustering three to four hours, we are no closer to kissing the ground before God in adulation and acknowledgment of a divine presence.

After visiting several churches of the Middle Ages up through the Renaissance periods in Europe, I can understand why they designed them that way: they were attempting to remind us of the enormousness of God and smallness of Human. Whether sitting, standing, or kneeling, a person feels the divergence between self and the vaulted representation of all that is above and beyond. What do we have in the U.S.? Mauve chairs, blue carpet and artificial flower arrangements. Comfort, comfort, comfort, to the eye as well as the buttocks.

Everything is so controlled in our churches. Either it’s a repetitive liturgy or it’s an “order of service” that is constrained by the clock. Even those services not confined to time are confined to set rituals.

How many times have I really felt and expressed my absolute surrender to God, Spirit God, Father God, Holy God? When has my body responded spontaneously to my soul’s understanding? When did I ever put my life in danger and touch the hem of the Master’s cloak or wash His feet with tears and dry them with my hair? When did we moderns lose our ability to relinquish self to the Holy Spirit?

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Photo by Paula Tatarunis

I had always assumed the “House of the Lord” meant the church or temple, a place for corporate worship. I interpreted this scripture (well worn by many of the faithful) to mean, show up every Sunday. Eyes opened today: it means the family place of God, to live or exist within the family, bound by the blood.

Psalm 27:4
One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.

I’ve never been that comfortable when church leaders refer to their constituents (or members) as family. I’m sure I’ve been tainted by a less than ideal family history. As immigrants, we had no relatives nearby. In fact, most were locked behind the iron curtain and Berlin wall until 1991. Family was a small corps of people, only three (since my father died when I was nine). I was always envious of those large family gatherings that people would have each holiday and I was delighted when our small family was embraced into a larger one, even briefly.

But the church family thing never really resonated. I suppose I couldn’t be myself in those gatherings. It was still too much like a public venue. I had to put on my “church face.”

Now, there is a different family to consider. This “family of God” is not the Church alone; it is not only the people who meet Sundays and weekdays, who have placed themselves under the banner of a particular denomination or church name (although they are included). No, I believe this family is within where the Spirit resides.

The “shelter of his sacred tent” [vs 5], is within.

This is the world of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. This is the place of creativity and imagination, music and color, beauty and light. This is the world outside of time.

And when two or more are gathered here [Matthew 18:20], God is in the midst of them: in the house of the Lord.

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