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 #14.
My experience at this church is an enigma. On one side, their friendliness embraced me; their service was energetic and appealing. I wanted more. On the other side, their theological stance that speaking in tongues is a required sign to validate a true salvation experience, communicates that I didn’t belong, serving to push me away.
Their doctrine makes a distinction that places much of Christianity on the outside. Instead of dividing Jesus’ church with declarations he didn’t proclaim, let’s accept our differing opinions and embrace one another.
May we be one, just as Jesus prayed we would be.
Last Sunday’s post about sharing our spiritual struggles was really the introduction for this week’s post, my groaning to reach what I strive for. My confession is that my normal joy of fasting has been mired in a season of misery.
For most of the past ten years, I’ve pursued a 24-hour fast from food once a week. I often talk about this, not to call attention to myself, but to encourage others to pursue it: if I can do it, so can you.
Fasting has not been a burden, but a pleasure that draws me closer to God, heightens my prayers, and focuses my thoughts. Most weeks, I look forward to it, and most of those weeks, I find what I seek. While not every fast goes as anticipated, most do – until last winter.
I fast on Thursdays, so when Thanksgiving rolls around, I skip that week. Last Thanksgiving was no exception, but afterwards I struggled mightily to resume my routine of fasting. More times than not, I fell short.
It took six months of effort, agony, and despair to reverse my fasting failures, but once again, I have mostly resumed my weekly fast. Though my fasts do again draw me to God, sharpen my prayers, and focus my attention, they have not been easy. I must strive to start my fast, strive to maintain it, and strive to end it well.
I don’t know if this is the new normal or if, with persistence, things will one day return to the old normal. What I do know is that for those who struggle with fasting, you are not alone.
Naomi means pleasant. She, her husband, and their two sons leave their home country and travel to Moab because of a famine. While in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies, leaving her a widow. Later both of her sons die, too, leaving Naomi with two widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. Naomi blames God for her misfortune and grows bitter.
Naomi decides to return home when she hears they have food. Orpah and Ruth start back with her. At Naomi’s urging Orpah decides to remain in Moab, but Ruth expresses deep commitment to Naomi and to God, promising to stay with her forever.
Soon after they return to Israel, Naomi develops a plan for Ruth to marry their relative, Boaz. They get married and Ruth has her first child, Obed. Naomi cares for Obed like a son, as the local women celebrate him and Naomi’s good fortune.
Like all of us, Naomi’s life contains struggle and disappointment, but God cares for her, providing a loyal daughter-in-law and a cherished grandson.
[Read about Naomi in the book of Ruth.]
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 #13.
If not for a prior commitment, this pastor and his wife would have invited us over for lunch. I would have enjoyed getting to know them over a meal. Yet, I’m relieved it didn’t work out; I would have felt guilty receiving their generosity when we have no plans to return. Such is the dilemma with only one Sunday allocated per church.
This husband and wife team inspire me in many ways. They pour themselves into the church they serve. They complement each other thoroughly. The way they mesh for a common purpose amazes me.
Their church is small and their congregation older. From a human perspective, the future is bleak. Surely the work must be discouraging. I pray they will persevere, that God will bless their efforts and provide the strength they need to press on.
A friend once told how he gave his TV away; he didn’t want one anymore. It was a spiritual act, a voluntary fast from television and the distractions it provided, in order to give him more time for God and family. He reveled in his decision and had no plans to ever own a TV again.
I admired his fortitude and wished I could do the same. But I could not. Surely he was more spiritual than I.
Imagine my surprise a few years later when I learned he again owned a TV. I asked why. He dismissed my confusion with a wave of his hand and a mumbled explanation that reframed his original intent. He had been quick to share his spiritual prowess but silent over his retreat.
Yet before I criticize him, let me admit to doing the same thing.
I once heard the reason there’s satanic activity at night is because Christians aren’t praying. I decided to do something about it. When I’d wake up in the middle of the night (a regular occurrence), I decided to spend an hour praying and then go back to sleep.
The first night was a powerful experience, lasting well beyond an hour; the first week was good, too, but not as great. Excited, I told my friends about my nighttime prayers, encouraging them to do the same. They shook their heads in dismay.
However, after two weeks, my hour of nighttime prayer had become a struggle. Twenty-five days later I could no longer withstand the fatigue it produced: falling asleep while praying and stumbling through my days in a sleep-deprived stupor. I stopped but didn’t tell anyone.
It’s far easier to celebrate our spiritual triumphs than to acknowledge our failings. Yet, we must do both. Others benefit when we encourage them with the highlights of our spiritual journey, yet they may benefit even more when we acknowledge our spiritual shortcomings. It’s an act of healing for us and reassurance for them, establishing a strong spiritual bond. Honest sharing is being real before others – and with God.
Ruth is a widow and foreigner who remains faithful to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth leaves her family to follow Naomi to Israel. The reason for Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law is a mystery, since Naomi is a bitter woman at this time. However, Ruth also expresses a devotion to God.
When they return, Ruth goes out to glean grain, at great physical risk, so she and Naomi will have some food. Ruth finds favor with Boaz, who knows of her fine reputation.
Naomi sets about to find another husband for Ruth, targeting Boaz and developing a strategy to bring that about. The result is capturing Boaz’s attention. He sets out to make Ruth his wife, deftly dealing with another possible suitor.
Boaz and Ruth marry. Ruth has her first child, Obed. Obed is the father of Jesse, the father of David. That makes Ruth, the great grandmother of King David and a direct ancestor of Jesus.
Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law and to God is rewarded. Ruth marries again, is saved from poverty, and has a son. She is later honored by Matthew who includes Ruth in the family tree of Jesus, one of only four women mentioned.
[Read about Ruth in the book of the Bible bearing her name.]
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 #12.
This United Methodist Church drew me. I wanted to make a return trip, attending for a full month. That would allow us to experience their variations of service styles. However, when I learned the pastor left, I lost all interest in going back. That’s when I realized I wasn’t drawn to the church but to its leader. Her style in conducting worship had a peaceful demeanor: full of wonder and respect.
Although it’s common in our hero-worship culture, choosing a church based on the minister’s style and personality is a bad idea. When the minister leaves, so will most of the people who attend because of him or her. The focus of our church attendance shouldn’t be on the minister, but on God.
Many years ago my dad gave me his twelve-year-old riding lawnmower. “If you’re careful,” he advised, “you might get a couple more years out of it.
The first time I used it, I prayed. I thanked God for his provision and for my parents’ generosity. I asked God to keep the mower running. Most every time I mowed lawn since then, I repeated that prayer. With my prayers, regular maintenance, and a few repairs along the way, the mower kept running – for another fifteen years.
When my friend moved, he sold me his riding mower for a great price, and I retired my faithful, worn out one. Out of habit, I continued praying when I mowed lawn, thanking God for his provision and my friend. I’d ask God to keep the mower running. That was ten years ago. With my prayers, regular maintenance, and a few repairs along the way, the mower has kept running.
Last week I was in a hurry when I mowed lawn. I forgot to pray. After a few minutes, the mower broke, leaving me with a partially groomed lawn. Fortunately, the repair was easy, and soon I was back on the mower, praying as I finished my work.
It would be wrong to make an absolute theological conclusion from me forgetting to pray and having my lawnmower break, but there is a lesson. God used this to remind me that, “When you pray, I listen.”
Thank you Jesus for this reminder, your provision, and my friend’s generosity. Please keep my mower running.
(In two weeks, I’ll give my lawnmower to my son. If he’s careful, he should get a couple more years out of it.)
We don’t know the name of Jephthah’s daughter, but we do lament what happened to her, all the while applauding the honorable way she accepted her fate, showing her faith and confidence in God in the process. Here’s her brief story:
When the elders of Gilead ask Jephthah to lead them into battle against their enemies, he makes a rash vow to God that, upon his successful return, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees as a burnt offering to God.
He is victorious. However, to his dismay, the first thing he sees when he arrives home is his daughter, his only child, who dances in celebration. He laments his foolish promise to God.
Yet, to her credit, Jephthah’s daughter doesn’t protest her father’s carelessness with her life. Instead she confirms he must act. Her only request is a two month delay to mourn her fate with her friends. Then Jephthah does has he vowed.
What is unclear is if Jephthah literally sacrifices his daughter, something Moses prohibited, or if her life is redeemed for service to God, similar to Hannah’s giving of Samuel to serve God in the temple. Regardless of what happened, it’s clear Jephthah’s daughter will not enjoy the future she expected, but she willingly accepts the consequences of her father’s promise to God. We commend her for her pious attitude, all the while being reminded to take care in what we say.
[The account of Jephthah’s daughter is in Judges 11:30-40.]
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 #11.
At this charismatic church, most of the attendees were middle-aged adults. The few youth present weren’t engaged in the worship or the message, as they measured time until they could leave. This disappointed me; they lacked the supernatural fire of their parents, who seem to have failed at passing their faith unto the next generation.
When I think of charismatic, several words come to mind: passionate, alive, and free. I didn’t see much of that, which left me confused. Sadly, this scenario would repeat at some of the other charismatic churches, too. I call this experience “charismatic lite.”