Cornelius is a commander in the Roman army; he’s also a man of faith, who prays often and gives to the poor. One day, during his afternoon prayers, he has a vision. An angel appears to him and says that God has received his prayers and gifts as a memorial offering.
Imagine that. God sees Cornelius’s prayers and help of those in need as a gift directly given to him; it is an offering, a memorial offering: something done in his name.
I don’t know if God accepts all our prayers as memorial offerings or holds all our efforts to help others in such high esteem, but it is something to contemplate.
I think to be counted as a memorial, it must be done in Jesus’ name. And to be received as an offering, it must be presented with right motives. So when we do things for Jesus with pure intentions, it may be that God will likewise receive our actions as a memorial offering to him.
As a kid, I was confused by how we could directly give to God. Maybe this is how. May all we do be a memorial offering to him.
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #44.
We revisited this church, which we attended some fifteen years ago. Though many of the people we knew then had scattered to other churches or just dropped out, a good number remained. I anticipated a time to reconnect with long ago friends. Also the congregation had grown, and there was a different minister. I wondered how much has changed.
Before and after the service, we didn’t put forth any effort to talk with anyone; we didn’t have to. People came to us in droves. We enjoyed their celebration of our presence, even though they came close to overwhelming us.
Although some churches embraced us well as visitors, none came close to the welcome this church gave us as longtime friends. This gives me pause. Do I give visitors the same attention and enthusiasm as I give to my friends? I don’t, but I should.
The tempo was upbeat and the song was inviting. Though new to me, I picked it up quickly. On the third time through the chorus, I started really contemplating the words – and I stopped singing.
Really, I did – right in midsentence. The words were wrong.
Though it’s technically illegal for me to quote song lyrics (and I don’t want to out an accomplished songwriter), the gist was that when things go bad, God will immediately rescue us.
I don’t see that happen very often in the Bible. Usually God waits. I don’t often experience instant resolutions in my own life, either. Usually he says to be patient. Yes, God provides, and he does answer my prayers, but he does it in his own way and in his own time. Seldom are the heavy things resolved immediately.
The song paints the expectation of instant gratification. Though appealing to modern society, it’s a bad way to understand God. The song should have said that when things go bad, we need to be patient; in the end, God will come through. That’s good teaching.
My concern is for people who base their understanding on God from the songs we sing in church. If they believe he will always immediately rescue them, as the song says, will their faith suffer a crisis when their experience is different? When God tarries, as he sometimes does, will they give up on God and walk away?
I hope not, but I fear so.
Just days after Pentecost, the people who follow Jesus begin to hang out. This is the first church. What did they do?
Luke records four key things:
- They learn about Jesus (think of this as a new believer’s class; after all, they were all new believers).
- They spend time with each other (that’s what fellowship means).
- They share meals
- They pray
In addition, they meet every day at the temple (outreach) and in homes (fellowship); they share all their possessions; they praise God – and every day more people join them.
There’s no mention of weekly meetings, sermons, music, worship, or offerings. If we’re serious about church in its purest form, this gives us much to consider.
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #43.
This congregation received us warmly and embraced our presence. They exuded a sense of family, just as true church should be. I felt a peace; I felt at home. As a community, they drew me in. Although their service style was not what I’m most comfortable with, these are good folks and part of me wants to join them.
However, my key observation was their excitement over their new leader, who will officially arrive in two weeks. Their enthusiasm was palpable. It was contagious and soon I joined in their anticipation. I wanted to come back in a few weeks to meet her.
However, I’m concerned over the height of their anticipation; surely, no person can live up to that and meet everyone’s wishes. When we put people on a pedestal, we form unrealistic expectations for them. As with all people, inevitably they will one day disappoint. And the higher the pedestal, the greater the disappointment.
I pray that the potential leadership before them will successfully emerge and not be thwarted as the newness of their minister’s arrival wears off.
Jesus says that whenever a few people get together in his name, he will be there. Isn’t this what church is? Jesus shows up when we collectively meet and treat him as the main attraction; this is church at its most basic and purest level.
Though we typically think of this as involving hundreds of people, Jesus says it only takes a few. And he says nothing about it being at 10 a.m. on a Sunday or requiring music and a message – just people.
So can church occur with a friend at a coffee shop? I say yes!
How about in a park, at a museum, or on a nature walk? Yes!
Can church happen during dinner at a friend’s house? Yes!
How about watching TV, playing a game, or just hanging out? Yes, yes, and yes!
Does any gathering that fosters community, constitute a church? As long as Jesus is the intention, the answer is yes.
Two or three gathered in his name. That’s what we did last Sunday at a friend’s house; it was church; and it was better than most any Sunday service.
Church can occur anytime a handful of people get together. All we need to do is make Jesus the focus. And shouldn’t we be doing that anyway?
After Jesus rises from the dead, he spends a few weeks hanging out with his followers. He tells then to stay in Jerusalem, waiting for a surprise Father God has planned for them: the gift of the Holy Spirit to come upon them and give them power.
They wait and the Holy Spirit shows up. Amazing things happen, and the number of Jesus’ followers explodes.
They waited in Jerusalem as instructed, and they received the gift of Holy Spirit power as promised. After all that, they remain in Jerusalem. They are supposed to spread out and spread the word; Jesus told them to do that, too. But they don’t; they stay where they are.
They don’t seem to realize that Jesus’ instruction to wait in Jerusalem doesn’t mean they’re supposed to stay there forever.
Sometimes what God tells us to do, is only for a season. Then there’s something else for us to do. But if we don’t make that transition, we end up being in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing.
The 2007 movie Bucket List followed two terminally-ill men facing the end of their lives. They each listed things they wanted to do before they “kicked the bucket” (died), which they called their “bucket list.” Then they set out to do as many of those things as possible.
This movie inspired many people to make their own bucket list.
Some bucket list items are extravagant and expensive, while others are simple tasks that could be done at any time and for little money. Some people list dreams outside their control, such as falling in love or getting married. Others write down goals or resolutions, such as graduate from college or lose weight. Some items on people’s bucket lists are things I’ve already done, but most are things I don’t care to do or figure aren’t worthwhile.
As for myself, I don’t have a bucket list.
This bothered me. Did the absence of a bucket list portray a lack of imagination? No, left unchecked my imagination swells to Walter Mitty proportions. Does it mean I’ve already done everything I want to do? Far from it, I have much remaining on my to do list. Even more worrisome, does an empty list reveal a lack of ambition? I hope not. I have many goals and dreams, but none of these are bucket list material; they are merely living life to its fullest.
I think my lack of a bucket list is simply a sign of contentment.
It’s not that I don’t want to do more and don’t strive to accomplish things, it’s that I’m content with who I am and were I am. This contentment isn’t natural for me but a reflection of the God who is at work in me.
While I thank God for the imagination, work, and ambition he gave me, I also thank him for a contentment that fills me with peace and removes an unhealthy yearning for what I don’t have.
I don’t have a bucket list, and I’m okay with that. Thank you God!
With our journey of visiting fifty-two churches over, I can reflect more on the complete experience. Today, I’ll add to my thoughts about Church #42.
I carried high expectations for this church. My unwarranted anticipation built them into something they were not, something few churches could ever achieve – or maintain. From such a lofty perch, theirs was a long way to fall: The service was tightly orchestrated, but felt disjointed, the songs were dated and tired, the people were self-absorbed, and the sermon was critical and divisive. This church exemplified many of the traits the unchurched levy against it. And I understand why.
However, even if I had no expectations for my experience with them, I’m sure I’d still have been disappointed. Perhaps I should have arrived, expecting the worst. Would that have allowed me to better see the good?
What I can say is, this is a larger church with a passionate following. Certainly, they are connecting with some people, just not me.
In the letter Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus he tells them to put on spiritual armor. Included in his list of gear is one offensive weapon: “the sword of the Spirit,” which he says is the word of God.
Many people understand this as a reference to the Bible, the written word of God. Until a few years ago, I did, too (even though the Bible as we know it today didn’t exist back when this was written). We are then to use the words of the Bible to combat evil and the evil one; it is our weapon to fend off the attacks of the devil and his minions. Sadly, too many people do use the Bible as a weapon, but against each other. They fling Bible verses like rocks, attempting to advance their point and subdue all disagreement. They forget the real enemy is not in the physical world but in the spiritual one. They forget to listen to each other and to love one another.
Other people see this instruction as a reference to the spoken word of God: the words of the Holy Spirit who directs each of us. Though a bit jarring to many, this understanding seems more consistent with the text, since it says the word of God is the sword of the Spirit, connecting word with Spirit. While I think this is a correct understanding, it’s also a risky one. What if we hear wrong? What if what I hear contradicts with what you hear? Then we have a problem.
However, we must keep in mind that the spoken word of God should align with the written word of God. If the two are in conflict, then what we think we heard must be in error.
With so much at stake, some people bypass the Holy Spirit and go straight to the Bible. While this might be safe, it falls short of God’s intent. Instead, we should listen to the spoken words of the Holy Spirit, confirming them with the written words of the Bible.
This is what the sword of the Spirit means to me.