Posts Tagged With: fellowship

God Is With Us Always: IV. Sacred Space, Sacred Time

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).

Solomon dedicates the temple. By James Tissot (1836-1902), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our previous post reminded us that God is everywhere and that we can worship Him everywhere. Some people find locations that have strong spiritual significance in their lives, which become “thin spaces” where they encounter God in a powerful way.

Jacob’s thin space, where he had a dream in which God promised to be with him throughout his journey, eventually became a prominent place of worship for his descendants, Bethel (Hebrew for “the house of God”). We can indeed meet God anywhere, but sometimes God’s people are inspired to set a sacred space apart specifically to worship Him.

Centuries later, one of Jacob’s descendants, King Solomon, built a temple in Jerusalem. This became the place to worship God. The Scripture verse above is part of the prayer he said while dedicating the temple.

Solomon acknowledged that his building, no matter how grandiose it was, could not contain God. The Lord is bigger than the universe. If the universe cannot contain Him, neither can a building that was only about 90 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 45 feet high.

Artist’s rendering of ancient Jerusalem with the temple. Public domain, from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

So, why would God have commanded Solomon to build a temple? Why would He want us to gather in churches now? Should we have church buildings?

First of all, we need to worship together:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:23–25).

The Christian life is best lived in community. When life gets difficult and the entire world seems to be turning against the believer, we need each other. We need to stimulate one another to love and good deeds; we need to be challenged; we need to be encouraged. We need reminders that our God is real. Without fellowship—without recognizing that my God is the same God my brothers and sisters in Christ worship—I can easily begin to worship a figment of my imagination, a god that I have created in my own image.

We need each other. We need sacred time and sacred space to worship together. Ideally, a church building will be a sacred space that God’s people have set apart to remind ourselves that He is always present. We can indeed worship God anywhere, but those who have met God in a church setting will be more likely to seek His presence outside church.

It will be a sacred space, set apart specifically for His worship. A sad feature of much modern worship is the way it can resemble a concert or a lecture. Many churches, in an attempt to seem “relevant” to the culture, replace the altar with a stage. The worship band is front and center. The pastor takes the microphone and takes center stage after the lead singer is finished. They are the stars. Other churches are set up to look like a lecture hall, well-suited for an introductory psychology course in college. One is a concert where the audience is entertained; the other is a lecture where the audience is instructed and informed. A person is the center of attention. There is no cross, no altar. The minister has claimed the central focus that should belong to God alone.

Interior of St. Patrick’s Church, a small church in Kickapoo, IL. A church does not have to be elaborate to be a sacred space to worship God. Photo by Arthur Greenberg, Environmental Protection Agency. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I would encourage all pastors and worship leaders to look at their worship space and ask, “Is God really the center of attention?” Let them pray like John the Baptist: “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Let that sacred space be a reminder that we worship a God Whose glory far exceeds all that we can imagine, One Who is worthy of all our attention.

We need sacred time as well. Yes, we can and should worship God anytime—not only on Sunday morning. In the Old Testament, God told the Israelites to hold several “holy convocations.” Some were annual, including the first and last days of Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), Rosh Hashanah (the Feast of Trumpets), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). However, every Sabbath was also a holy convocation. While the Sabbath was a day of rest, it was also a time for God’s people to gather together.

God’s children still need space and time. Corporate worship serves several important purposes for our daily lives:

First, it reminds us that God is holy. He is not to be taken lightly but deserves all of our devotion.

Second, it reminds us that all of our lives belong to Him. My worship with my brothers and sisters in Christ, in the house of the Lord, begins my week. It also propels my life for the rest of the week. It sets the tone for my everyday life.

Third, it reminds us that everything else belongs to God as well. A church building is sacred because God’s people have set it apart for His worship. God’s children can set aside other parts of our world as holy ground.

Your living room, including its television, can be holy ground. Your computer can be holy ground. Your desk at work can be holy ground; even if you cannot pray or read your Bible there, you can do your work “as unto the Lord.”

Let our daily walk with Jesus be grounded in worship on holy ground with His people in such a way that our worship in church guides our lives throughout the week.

How has holy ground and holy time shaped your daily walk with Jesus? Feel free to share your thoughts by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, God's Majestic Attributes, Omnipresence | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holy Week and Social Distance

Get ready for the strangest Holy Week we may have ever seen.

Easter is one of the two biggest days of the year for attendance in most churches, and many churches normally have several special services in the week leading up to it. Palm Sunday can be particularly festive: church members receive palm branches, which we wave in celebration, perhaps singing “Hosanna in the Highest.” My church has a special service on Holy Wednesday, called Tenebrae. Then, there is Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday in some churches, when we commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of holy communion. My church has two services on Good Friday, including a three-hour afternoon service where four members share personal testimonies of “What the Cross Means to Me” and we reflect on how Jesus took our sins upon Himself by dying for us. The week’s worship can be very intense, ranging from celebratory and joyful to somber and repentant to reflective and meditative.

Photo by Michael E. Lynch

Then comes Easter Sunday, a day of great celebration in most churches. While every Sunday should be a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection (indeed, every day should be), Easter is especially glorious. Some people come to church only twice per year, on Christmas and Easter. My church can be standing-room-only on Easter.

However, this year will be different. The coronavirus pandemic has canceled services throughout the country. Here in the New York City metropolitan area, “ground zero” of the outbreak in America, gatherings of 10 or more people are currently prohibited. Instead of a packed house, our pastor and a small group of worship leaders will have a service with no congregation, to be streamed online for those who choose to watch. It will be one of the few churches on Long Island to provide communion: congregants will drive up to the front of the church to receive the bread and a blessing. We will also receive our palms with communion today, and will also live-stream the other Holy Week services. Our church includes a foot-washing ceremony as part of the Maundy Thursday evening service: I am not sure how that will play out online!

Many churches are live-streaming their worship services like we are, but few are offering communion. Some churches may find it difficult to minister to their people at all.

Holy Week will have a big hole in it without corporate worship. I feel like an online video worship service with curbside communion is better than nothing, but it is not the full worship experience. There is something about being in the church, surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ, uniting in praise and worship, especially when some of us are going through hard times and need to be surrounded by friends.

While many of us are used to speaking of our personal relationship with Jesus, social distancing reminds us that it really is more of a familial relationship with God. My relationship with God is not separated from others’ relationships with Him. While it is true that we can worship God alone, there is an added benefit when we worship Him with the rest of the family of God.

We need each other. We inspire each other. We challenge each other. We pray for each other. In spite of our differences, and sometimes especially because of those differences, we gain a blessing through corporate worship.

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version).

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

The biblical account of Jesus’ last week reminds us that humans are social beings. We live, worship, eat, and survive in a group. Jesus entered Jerusalem with His disciples. He cleared the money changers from the temple as His disciples looked on. He spent almost every moment of His final week with those 12 men, including that Last Supper. Perhaps a particularly painful part of His crucifixion was that fact that He died almost alone. One disciple betrayed Him, one denied knowing Him, and most of the rest scattered into hiding and left Him alone. Only His mother, Mary Magdalene, and John stayed with Him until the end.

Jesus’ last week also reminds us that we can be powerfully influenced by our social group, for good or ill. On Palm Sunday, the crowd welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Five days later, the crowd would change its tune and shout, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22-23). We can only wonder how many people were in both crowds, inspired by the disciples on Sunday but swayed in the opposite direction by the chief priests and Pharisees on Friday. We think of peer pressure as a problem that affects only young people, but all of us can be affected by those around us, for good or ill.

As we approach Holy Week altered by social distancing, we must each decide how we will remain connected to the Body of Christ. Perhaps you can call a friend on the phone or set up a Skype session so that you can encourage one another during this stressful time and pray together. Some people are using Zoom or other online apps to gather a group virtually. Social distancing may force us to adapt how we fellowship, but it does not have to force us into spiritual and emotional isolation. It may change how we worship during Holy Week, but it does not have to keep us from worshiping God at a time when we really need Him most.

Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.




Categories: Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Current events, Holidays | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abiding in the Vine: III. Pruning and Cleansing

The previous article in this series mentioned that it is important for Christians to remain connected to other branches of the vine—other Christians, particularly the Church—to strengthen our connection with the Vine, Jesus. Some might say that they do not need church. They say they have been hurt by other Christians, and they think they fare better if they keep to themselves.

It is true that the Church is an imperfect reflection of Christ. Christians fail to live up to the full measure of Jesus Christ sometimes. Some of us can look more like nonbelievers or children of the devil than like children of God. We have to grow. We have to mature. Branches require regular maintenance.

“Every branch in me that does not bear fruit {God the Father} takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated).

A farmer tending to his vine. From pixnio.com (public domain).

We can imagine a vinedresser examining his plant. It has some lifeless branches; they have not produced any fruit for a while. These branches are simply taking up space. They need to be cut off. Perhaps fresh, living, fruitful branches will grow in their place.

There are some other branches, though, that are bearing some fruit. To increase the amount of fruit, the vinedresser might clip away the ends of some branches, beyond where buds, leaves, and fruit are growing. This way, the plant’s sap is not wasted nourishing empty space. Nourishment is maximized. Growth is enhanced. Life springs forth.

There are some people in the church who do not have the life of Christ in them. They may attend worship on Sunday. Some of them might even look really spiritual. But, the life of Christ—the fruit of the Spirit—is not present. The Holy Spirit does not dwell within them. At some point, they will be cut off. Matthew 13:24–30 indicates that this final cutting off will occur at the end of the age. In the meantime, God does not waste His time sanctifying the unsaved. He may still offer them repentance, but they should not mistake themselves for being Christian merely because they are surrounded by disciples of Jesus. In the words of Christian contemporary-music pioneer Keith Green, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.”

Meanwhile, the follower of Jesus undergoes the pruning process of sanctification. Perhaps the dead wood is sin that remains in the believer’s life. God wants to cut it off and set you free so that you can bear fruit. Sometimes, the dead wood is not really sin; it is just excess baggage that holds us back from fully serving Him. Monks throughout church history have made many sacrifices in Jesus’ name. At times, they gave up things that most of us would consider good: relationships with family and friends; careers; a few luxuries; opportunity to enjoy entertainment or engage in casual conversation (some monks take vows to say nothing unless it is in prayer and praise to God).

They gave up good morally-acceptable things to devote themselves to the will of God. What about us? Are there good things holding us back from doing the better things God has planned for us? Are we watching TV, playing sports, reading books, or surfing the Internet, but cannot find time for prayer or fellowship? God may need to do some pruning in your life. It is part of your growth as a Christian and your fruitfulness as a branch on His Vine.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1).

Sometimes, commitment to Christ will mean more than giving up sin. It may involve giving up every weight that limits are faithfulness and fruitfulness. It will require us allowing God to cut off the fruitless ends of healthy branches along with the dead wood.

Let us remember that the believer in Jesus Christ is saved because he already believes. We do not become Christians, or become “more Christian” or “better Christians,” because we let God prune us. If you are a believer in Christ, you are already cleaned, forgiven, and saved. Shortly before He was arrested, Jesus said:

“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).

Earlier that evening, He had already introduced this concept. While washing the disciples’ feet, He came to Peter:

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean…’” (John 13:6–10).

The child of God is already clean through the Word of God. We are already saved and forgiven. However, as we live our lives, we collect junk. We face temptation. We give in to temptation and sin. We may be wounded by the attacks of Satan, the mistreatment of others, or the misfortune of daily living. We need to be wiped clean every now and then through confession and renewed repentance. This process does not make us Christians. It merely preserves us so that we can continue to grow in Christlikeness and fruitfulness.

We do not get to decide how God will prune us. Since God is doing the work and we are merely the branches, He is in control. If you sense that the Holy Spirit is convicting you to give something up, do what He says. Do not bargain or offer alternatives. To obey God is better than offering your own self-selected sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22).

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that we need to be in fellowship with the church, even if we feel that we have been hurt by other Christians. Dealing with their imperfections is one of the ways we grow and are pruned and cleansed. People will hurt us. They will give us reasons to forgive them. They will irritate us, thereby revealing our weaknesses. It is all part of the spiritual growth process. If we avoid church because we have been hurt, we are only hurting ourselves.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Abiding in the Vine, Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Abiding in the Vine: II. Staying Connected to Christ and His People

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”
(John 15:3–6; all Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless indicated otherwise).

Image courtesy of Max Pixel.

Part I of this series introduced four key lessons of Jesus’ teaching about the vine and branches. In the words of Andrew Murray, they are the lessons of entire consecration, perfect conformity, absolute dependence, and undoubting confidence.

All of these lessons flow from the fact that the branch abides as part of the vine. The branch draws its life from the vine. If you remove a branch from a vine or tree, it will die. If you remove an organ or limb from the human body, it will die.

Jesus tells us that we are His branches. He is the vine. If you are separated from Jesus, you do not have spiritual life within you. “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Vines and trees have numerous branches, all of which play a role in the life of the plant. One branch does not make up the entire vine. It needs the vine, and it needs the other branches. Christians need to be connected with the vine, which will create a living connection with other branches:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

To partake of the life of Christ, we must remain connected to Him, and that requires a connection to His people, the Church. An important starting point for a Christian to abide in the vine is to abide with other believers. One of Satan’s most effective ways to remove Christians from a living connection with Jesus is to persuade them to disconnect from the Body of Christ. The life of Christ flows through the Church. We need one another.

We will not grow if we choose to remove ourselves from the rest of the vine. Humans are social beings who need relationship. One of God’s first observations about the first man, Adam, was that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Marriage grew out of the very social nature that God crafted within us. Our need for relationship was mentioned immediately after God addressed man’s need for food.

We are not the only beings on Earth with a social need. Many animal species rely on a social network to survive. In fact, the need to connect may spread beyond the animal kingdom. A recent, controversial theory proposes that even trees might socialize with each other. Not only does a tree rely on its branches, and the branches rely on the rest of the tree. Trees may, in a way similar to human families and animal groups, rely on each other.

How much more do we need one another to survive spiritually. Our gifts, joys, trials, victories, defeats, and other life experiences, shared among people who are seeking to follow Christ, knit us together like the branches of a vine or the trees of an orchard. We grow together.

Our connection with other Christians is one of the most important ways to strengthen our connection with Jesus Christ Himself. He is the Source of Life, and we need to remain connected to our brethren and to Him if we seek to have life abundantly (John 10:10).

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Abiding in the Vine, Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rooting Out Pride and Cultivating Humility

To follow up on my recent post about pride and humility, I would like to offer a few biblical suggestions for rooting out pride and cultivating humility. This is not an exhaustive list. The Bible has a lot to say about pride: the word appears about 50 times, depending on which version you are reading. This does not count synonyms (“haughtiness,” “arrogance”) or related vices like self-righteousness or hypocrisy. I guess I should study all of those verses; I had to look up how many times the word appears, so I have a lot to learn!

Prayer: James writes, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2-3; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated). Prayer prevents pride in two ways. First, it forces us to acknowledge that we need God’s help. Many of my prayers involve situations that are completely out of my control. I cannot control other people’s actions; sometimes I can barely control my own! When I pray for a situation that is beyond my control and the situation turns out okay, I am reminded that Someone greater than me is in control.

Second, when done properly, prayer forces us to face our motives. The Book of Common Prayer contains four daily sessions of prayer known as the “Daily Office.” Three of those include confession of sin near the beginning. Whether you follow a structured form of prayer like the Daily Office or a more freestyle approach, make certain to set aside time at the very beginning for confession of your sins.

Confession sets the tone for our prayers. As we pray, we have to look at ourselves honestly. Where have I fallen short? Where do I continue to fall short? What are the odds that I am going to give in to my weaknesses before I get to the Old Testament reading for this evening? That can set the tone for a related spiritual discipline.

Scripture reading: If I have been forced to focus on my motives during prayer, I am ready to ask myself the hard questions while reading the Bible. What can I learn from this? What is this saying to me? How am I like the person who sinned in this passage? How am I not like Jesus? How am I failing to live by what He said? How can I be more like Jesus, or at least a little bit more like some of the other heroes of the Bible?

If you read a particular passage of Scripture and cannot find a way that you are falling short, thank God for His grace. He is working on you. If you read a passage and can find excuses why you do not have to follow it, admit it for what it is: pride.

Fellowship: Few things will tear down our pride like other people. Fellowship with other believers is a key part of overcoming pride. Other people will annoy you. They will reveal where you lack patience. They will expose your weak spots. Sometimes, this is unintentional; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and they will grind your gears in the process. Sometimes, it is intentional and mean-spirited. Jesus calls us to forgive. This will take humility. Sometimes, it is intentional, but with the best of intentions. When somebody lovingly points out your shortcomings or misguided motives, it is an opportunity to learn, repent, and grow.

Over the years, I have known numerous church-hoppers. They do not remain members of a particular church for a long time, but will move on to a new congregation when they feel like “I am not being fed here anymore.” I have also known several people who stopped going to church, even though they say they are still disciples of Jesus. In both cases, they usually leave when a person or teaching attacks their pride. Rather than learn humility, they run. Don’t run; God is working on you. He is just using people to do it.

Shut up and listen: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). You can always learn something. Do not try to show off that you are your Bible study group’s resident theologian or should be the next pastor. Take some time to listen. Understand why people believe what they believe. See if they have some insight that you need. You will probably learn something and grow closer to the Lord as a result.

Finally, measure yourself against God’s standard: Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” God, who has revealed Himself to us through Jesus Christ, is our standard. I have sinned because I have not lived up to God’s standard. Whether I am better or worse than another person is not the issue. Even though I have not killed as many people as Hitler did, I still need God’s forgiveness. “Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Corinthians 10:12). You still have room to grow, and that is okay. It is part of being human. God becomes our standard, so we have eternity to learn and grow.

Somebody has said that humility is an elusive quality: As soon as you think you have it, you lose it. However, rooting out pride and cultivating humility is not a one-time event. You cannot schedule it on Google Calendar and seriously hope to complete the task by January 1. It is a crucial part of our lifetime journey of walking with Jesus and growing in grace.

Copyright © 2019 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Character and Values, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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