You see, of course, my dilemma.

So I’m listening to the Writing Excuses Season Capstone, and I’m starting to realize why I’ve never become a professional writer: I have too many hobbies. I have a lot of things I’m interested in and I do well enough at them naturally that I could have chosen any one of them to pursue professionally, but only at the expense of dropping all the others. I sing and dance; I play guitar; I write fiction and non-; I study theology and economics… but none of those turn into money, except at a very high level of development.

Developing one means dropping all the others and taking a gamble, and it’s a gamble I’ve never been willing to take. Which is odd, because I’m not particularly risk adverse. But I am proud. Too proud, for instance, to stay in my parents house for a decade, pursuing a career that might not work out. To proud to risk being accused of failure to launch.

So what have I done instead? I picked the one interest that had low barriers to entry, and easy to monetize early: sitting at a desk, organizing stuff. Small fame there, but a decent paycheck. And that’s how I became the Army Sustainment Officer I am today. It turns out my most lucrative calling is to be a bureaucrat.

That doesn’t erase the itch to accomplish something more… refined? with my life. It just steals a certain chunk of my time. So I am even now looking into refining the roughage out of the remaining hours that I have, so I can set aside time to do pursue one of my old affections. I’m going to have to shove aside one or two of my big three weekend and evening pursuits: church involvement, Facebook, and being a dad.

Do you know what I’m tired of? People standing up and announcing a lie that they heard and blaming Christians because they heard it at church. Look, we already knew the Devil goes to church. Sometimes he likes to see if he can get behind the pulpit. But he’s a tricky guy. Sometimes he lets you catch one lie just so he can push you the other way. There’s nothing devils like better, I think, than to turn around and say, “Aha! And you heard that one at church!” Yeah, you did. Let’s rev up the anguish. Let’s love God so as to avoid loving our brother.

Listen: Jesus loves you more than life itself, and it is quite possible that he loves his church even more than you. The church where people hurt you; the church where well-meaning people fed you false doctrine; the church were you didn’t do so hot yourself, and you might have left a few broken windows and some bite marks. Christ has said that he will see his bride without spot or blemish before the end, and every wrinkle, every scar, every limp and every glare, they may not just go away. That may be just where the glory comes out.

The beauty of the Saints Assembled

Psalm 133:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!
Like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
Like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.

It’s in the wee hours, and I wish I had the energy to say this with the lyricism that it deserves, but I would like to urge you, dear brother or sister, to consider the beauty of the saints assembled. How many times have you heard someone say that they can worship God better alone, out in the wilderness somewhere, surrounded by trees or enjoying some scenic vista? The reasoning usually goes that God created the wilderness and we can worship him by admiring His handiwork. If that’s you, I’d like to urge you to reconsider. You may have been catechized by 19th century romantics, rather than God’s word.

Go back to the scriptures. Do a survey, and tell me where, by instruction and by example, we are taught to find God’s presence. I’m sure you will find a prophet alone on a mountain or two, but overwhelmingly you will see people worshiping God together, in His temple, in the midst of the congregation. And where is His temple today? The saints assembled.

You say you don’t like church, you don’t care for crowds, the music annoys you, all preachers are more ignorant than you. I understand. No really, I do. I’ve had entire church movements turn to stale water in my mouth. I joined a church once and spent the next six months regretting it as the pastor preached up to the verge of heresy at least once a fortnight. Sometimes you don’t join for you. Sometimes you don’t get anything out of it. Sometimes, what God intends for you to get out of it is not the sort of thing you would have ever asked for. But life comes from the interconnectedness of the Body of Christ. You cannot be a Christian alone. You may find that you are like the appendix in the body of Christ – no one knows what you’re there for, and they’ll only let you stay if you don’t cause any trouble. Stay. Try not to cause any unnecessary trouble. If you’re hurting, ask for help. But remember: You cannot honestly say you love God if you can’t stand to be with the brethren.

Psalm 68:15-18

Mount Bashan is God’s towering mountain;
Mount Bashan is a mountain of many peaks.
Why gaze with envy, you mountain peaks,
at the mountain God desired for His dwelling?
The Lord will live there forever!
God’s chariots are tens of thousands,
thousands and thousands;
the Lord is among them in the sanctuary
as He was at Sinai.
You ascended to the heights, taking away captives;
You received gifts from people,
even from the rebellious,
so that the Lord God might live there.

We Are Your Church

As we’ve been working through 1 Corinthians at church, our pastor has been pounding home just what it means to be the church – we are Christ’s body, God’s temple; if anyone destroys God’s temple, He will destroy them, etc – I’ve been reminded of a vision I once had. I went to look up the notes I’d written down, and discovered I had been a very bad writer indeed. So this is another attempt to say what I saw. (I say “vision” loosely. I had some pictures come to my mind as a kind of story. Those pictures have stayed with me over the years as a kind of tying together of some themes from scripture. They have been helpful for me to remember.) So:

I saw myself walking through a large mansion, with many floors and hallways stringing rooms in many directions, and I knew that this was the house that God was building, a temple not made by human hands. It was full of rooms, but not full of people, because every part of the house was made up of people – the foundation was Jesus Christ, and the walls and floors and ceilings were made up of the members of His church, each person tightly fitted to the next. The thing that struck me was that the house looked empty. The problem with a house made out of people is that there’s nobody in the house. Who is it for?

I saw that there was a steady flow of visitors to the house – people who were not part of the church. They would tour the rooms, see the architecture and the arrangement of the rooms, the fixtures, the lighting. For some it was like a tour of a museum, or a famous landmark – interesting, but not inspiring. And I thought to myself, that surely the house wasn’t meant for their benefit. Surely we are meant for something more than tourism! But there were others who were able to see more than that – something of God’s design for the world, a reflection of His glory. These people were overcome with awe at the splendor of what God was doing there., and they began giving themselves over to different rooms and walls until they laid down their lives completely and became a part of the building. And I saw that the house was intended for them, in the sense that they were brought there for the sake of the house.

Then I noticed that the air around me was flowing, not like the air of a fan, or the steady flow of a breeze, but the in and out of a bellows, or breathing. I looked around to see what was making the air flow like that, and I saw that the walls and floors were moving. The rooms were oddly shaped, with hardly any straight lines or regular angles, and the hallways connected everything in a kind of bewildering pattern. Each room was constantly changing. Some rooms were expanding and contracting, like giant lungs, which is what was causing the air to flow through the building. Some rooms were actively growing, dividing into new rooms, and changing function as the changed shape. Some rooms were even moving from one part of the house to another! Slowly it dawned on me that it wasn’t just the stones that were alive. The building as a whole was functioning as a living organism. The house itself was alive! Then I could see the house from the outside and saw that the building was slowly taking on the shape of a man, and I remembered what it says in Ephesians – “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man…”

Next, I saw that the entire house was shaken by a terrible earthquake. The ground shook with such force, that I was sure that the entire structure would be broken in half. Whole wings did collapse, and many rooms fell from a great height to be completely severed from the construction, but the building as a whole was not destroyed. However, the earthquake did start a fire that swept through every room, and it burned for a long time, because there was no system for fire suppression, and the rooms that had survived the earthquake were the ones that were most open to air movement throughout the building. When the dust had cleared and the fires had finally stopped, I saw that the house had changed dramatically. Instead of pristine, chiseled blocks, they were smoke blackened and scarred. Not one block was left untouched. They all had chips had broken off, and a network of cracks spidering through them. Dark ravine-like lines traveled the course of every block. The whole thing looked ready to crumble.

I was dismayed. It seemed completely pointless. What good was it to build a building with such character – a living building – only to subject it to earthquake and fire. There had been no attempt at all to protect the building from the dangers of natural disaster. In fact, it looked deliberate, which made the destruction of such value even more meaningless. Why would God do this to the living stones of His own dwelling place? It was awful! Then I heard a voice say,

But now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:26-29)

Slowly, my perspective was pulled back from the building, and as my view expanded, I saw something different. The house was now covered in a tight network of statues. Every wall was bas-relief; every pillar was a pose. Every floor and ceiling was covered in mosaic. It was as if the earthquake was the last “ting!”, breaking the plaster off a cast iron mold. God was building a house for himself, for his dwelling, according to His glory, and He wasn’t concerned about the impression He made on people who couldn’t see the whole picture.

scope creep

One of the honors my church has given me in the last few months is the privilege of writing study notes to go along with the Sunday Sermon. These notes are then available for use by home groups that meet throughout the week. We’ve been working through 1 Corinthians, and today I’m supposed to be working on the “how do you build on Paul’s foundation” part of chapter 3, but I’m stymied because of how hard this section pulls on my heartstrings. Build the church, man. That is what I am about.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The second time I went to school to learn to be a minister was much better than the first. It was thicker, richer. And one of the first things that I realized was that my charismatic, independent, localized vision for the church was just too small. It didn’t even cover richness and breadth of the interconnected networks of secular society, and the church is greater than that.

Look, Nebuchadnezzar saw it. Daniel tells us his vision about the layered statue, with the golden head and clayey feet. The statue represented the governments of nations, and the stone which destroyed that statue was Jesus Christ. But what is the mountain that came from that stone, if it isn’t the church?

The shape of that mountain is important. It’s a single mountain that covers the entire earth. As I realized once in a conversation with some Mormon missionaries, it’s a single mountain, not a mountain range. So Daniel 2:” the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.” No interruptions. That casts down any assertions that there was a true church, which stopped, and then an intermediate period with no church, or a false church, followed by a restored true church.

At the same time, the mountain is a good deal bigger than the statue. It’s a mountain, not a hill, so it’s taller than the statue, and it clearly covers more ground. I take that to mean that it lasts longer through the generations (hello? forever?), and that it touches more of society. Local congregations, private associations, friendships, national governments… all of these things, inasmuch as they are real and valid ways for people to relate to each other and work together and form a society, will be subsumed in the world-mountain that is the church.

All of it. I can’t read the news without my vision of the church getting bigger. I can’t read about economics without my vision of the church getting better. I can’t think about business, or logistics, or farming, without my vision of the church getting bigger.

And here’s Paul talking about building the church, like it’s all okay. Now, it’s not enough to be a component of God’s active retrofit of all of human civilization, he wants me (us) to build it. That’s exciting. It’s astounding. And it’s not too daunting, because as best I can tell, the church universal is still only made up of the church local. I build up the church by building up my church.

And, hey, look. I get to help build the church by writing review questions for a sermon about building the church. The challenge is following the sermon, and not the pictures in my head. (And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here…”) Talk about scope creep!