OUTSIDE THE BOX

Lowdermilk Park - Naples FLI appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. [1 Corinthians 1:10 (NLT)]

Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. [Matthew 16:18 (NLT)]

Since she is new to town, I invited Alice to our church. “What denomination?” she asked. When I told her we were non-denominational she thought I meant we were a church of whatever the individual wanted to believe and asked, “Do you mean Unitarian?” I assured her we’re Bible-based Christians but, unable to wrap her mind around the concept, she rattled off a set of questions. No hierarchy, bishops or diocese? No formal liturgy? No membership requirements or official canons or procedures? Who tells you what to believe? To whom are you accountable?

In Letters to the Church, Francis Chan asks the reader to imagine someone on a desert island, having no experience with Christianity, with only the Bible as reference. Asking first how this person might picture church and worship, he then asks the reader how his church and worship stack up to those first century expectations. Here in Florida, we attend two different churches and one fits Alice’s expectations: denominational, organizational hierarchy, church campus, sanctuary, chapel, liturgy, hymnals, pews, pulpit, choirs, choir director, organ, meeting rooms, video screens, stained glass, sound system, and several services. While Alice would identify it as a traditional church, that marooned person and the Apostle Paul probably wouldn’t recognize it.

Because I love the liturgy and hymns, we do attend that church Saturday nights. The church to which I invited Alice, however, is the church I think of as home. Less than a year old, while the early church met in homes, we meet in a city park and, since we’re in Florida, we can meet there all year long. Although non-denominational, we do have a core set of Bible-based beliefs and, to maintain doctrinal, financial, and leadership accountability, we belong to several Christian organizations. We have no formal liturgy, prayer books, hymnals, sound system, or choir (although the birds usually sing throughout the service). Rather than stained glass, we have palm trees, sea grapes, blue sky, and the Gulf of Mexico decorating our sanctuary. When we meet for Bible study, we rent a room in a community center. By today’s standards, our “outside the box” church is anything but traditional but I think the Apostle Paul would easily recognize it.

Last week, our similarity with the 1st century church came to mind when we met together at the community center for an early Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone brought a dish to share and, along with more than enough food, there was laughter, joy, and plenty of fellowship. I think Paul would have recognized Christ’s church as the sixty of us ate dinner, prayed and, in true early church tradition, partook of communion as a family.

Whether we are part of a traditional or unconventional church, let us remember that Christ’s church is not about a building but rather a group of believers. A church structure without a family of believers is not a church whereas a family of believers without a building is one! Christ’s church, regardless of where or how it worships, exists wherever two or three are gathered together!

For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them. [Matthew 18:20 (NLT)]

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WHAT’S YOUR GIFT

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. [1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NLT)]
barred owl - painted bunting - penguin

When I was writing about the peacock’s unpleasant scream yesterday, I pictured him complaining to the owl that the wren has a nicer voice. The wren chirped back her complaint that, unlike the peacock, she was small and nondescript. Hearing them, the penguin complained about his plain black and white feathers but the colorful painted bunting countered that she was unable to swim. The pelican joined the grumbling and whined that he couldn’t flit from flower to flower like the hummingbird who then expressed jealously over the pelican’s large bill. When the bald eagle protested not having long legs like the ostrich and the ostrich expressed envy at the eagle’s ability to soar high in the sky, the wise owl hooted at them all to be quiet.

Unlike the other birds, the owl did not grumble about what many would consider his shortcomings: his dull color, asymmetrical ears, and farsightedness. Explaining that his dull color gives him camouflage, the lopsided ears allow him to locate prey at night, and his farsightedness makes him an excellent hunter, he told the other birds to be thankful for their gifts. He reminded each bird of what made it special: the peacock’s beautiful tail, the wren’s ability to sing and trill, the penguin’s powerful flippers and streamlined body, the bunting’s unique coloring, the pelican’s skill at diving from heights of 30-feet, the hummingbird’s capability of flying backwards, the eagle’s eyes that can spot a rabbit two miles away, and the ostrich’s gift of running faster than any other bird. Rather than complaining about what they didn’t have, they should appreciate their own unique God-given gifts and use what they were given with wisdom, joy and thanksgiving.

Like the birds, we too have gifts: both the talents we were given at birth and the spiritual gifts we received from the Holy Spirit. Those talents and gifts are as unique as a peacock’s tail or the wren’s song. Some gifts, like the strong legs of an ostrich or a pastor’s inspired preaching are rather obvious. Others, like the owl’s lopsided ears or the healing embrace of someone gifted with empathy are less apparent. Rather than complain, as did the birds, we should take inventory of our many gifts and talents, appreciate and develop them, and use them enthusiastically and wisely to glorify God. Let’s appreciate what we have and accept that there will always be some things, like singing or soaring, that are best left to others.

Our purpose should be to discover the gifts He has given us and to use those gifts faithfully and joyfully in His service, without either envying or disparaging the gifts we do not have. [John MacArthur]

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. … It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. [1 Corinthians 12:7,11 (NLT)]

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KING OF KINGS

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. [Daniel 7:13-14 (NIV)]

Church of our Lady - Netherlands

As we left the church, my friend asked “What do the letters INRI above the cross mean?” Unable to say it in Latin, I replied that it was an abbreviation of the words, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” In Latin, these words would be Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. When someone was crucified, it was usual to affix a sign to the cross declaring the cause of execution. Since the official charge against Jesus seemed to be that he’d challenged Roman rule by proclaiming himself the king of the Jews, Pilate had those words written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. As Pilate phrased it, however, the words seem more of a title rather than an accusation. When the high priests asked that the sign be changed to read “He said, I am the King of the Jews,” Pilate refused.

Other than that dark day when He was crucified and the title “king of the Jews” was used with scorn and mockery by the soldiers and crowd, Jesus was referred to as “king of the Jews” only one other time: at the visit of the Magi when they asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” [Matthew 2:2] While most of Jesus’s countrymen didn’t acknowledge His identity, it was foreigners who recognized his sovereignty at His birth and a Roman governor who acknowledged His kingship at death.

Was Jesus the king of the Jews? A king’s supremacy is limited to his domain. The ruler of a nation, a king’s power is limited by his lifetime and the borders of his kingdom. He must defend his government from enemy nations and his regime from revolution. A king of the Jews would reign only over Judah’s territory and the children of Israel. When asked if He was king of the Jews, Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world. Indeed, Jesus’s kingdom wasn’t limited to Judah and the Jews. Unlike earthly kingships, His reign is absolute, unbreakable, sacred, and everlasting. When God raised Jesus from the dead, He was given power over all of creation and all people on earth, not just the Jews of Judah. Pilate’s sign was wrong. Jesus wasn’t the “king of the Jews;” He was and still is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers. [Revelation 17:14 (NIV)]

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LOST IN THE MAZE

All of us like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. [Isaiah 53:6a (NLT)

blue morning gloryWhen visiting my daughter’s family in New Mexico, a trip to the pumpkin farm and navigating through the dreaded corn maze is a fall tradition. I say “dreaded” because I’m so directionally challenged that I’d have trouble finding my way out of a box. Fortunately, my daughter did not inherit my poor sense of direction so, like a good shepherd, she carries the map and leads her flock through the maze. As long as the family is in eyesight, I pay no attention to where we are. Last time out, I saw some beautiful blue morning glories and stopped to take photos. Seeing prettier ones down a path, I went over to them, spotted a butterfly, and started following it through the corn. Before I knew it, my family was nowhere in sight and I was hopelessly lost. In a labyrinth of corn stalks, every path seemed to be a dead end and, having left my phone in the car, I couldn’t even call my daughter! Eventually, hearing someone call my name, I looked up and saw my family standing on a high viewing platform in the middle of the field. From their vantage point, they managed to direct me through the maze until I rejoined them.

In Jesus’s parable of the Good Shepherd, I’d often wondered how that one sheep got lost if the shepherd was properly shepherding; now I know. The shepherd was doing his job by leading and the flock was doing theirs by following, but that one lamb wasn’t paying attention to either of them. Perhaps it found some tasty red clover and, spotting a field of pink vetch, wandered over for a nibble. Maybe, like me, it followed a butterfly and, before the lamb knew what happened, it was all alone. It didn’t mean to stray; it just stopped following the flock and paying attention to the shepherd and, once on its own, the lamb was vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, the good shepherd went looking for it just as my family looked for me.

It’s incredibly easy to lose our way, not just in mazes and pastures, but in the complicated, bewildering and often perilous world in which we live. Jesus, our Shepherd, wants us to be safe by remaining part of His flock. Unfortunately, instead of morning glories or butterflies, we can get distracted by anything from busyness to boredom, from success to defeat. We don’t mean to stray but things like ambition, popularity, self-importance, doubt, worry, discontent, anger, guilt, or disappointment can sidetrack us. We start to wander and, before we know it, we’re lost and vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. Fortunately, we don’t need a phone to call our Good Shepherd; a simple prayer is all it takes.

Staying connected with other people of faith—people who follow the shepherd and will guide us when we’re lost, encourage us when we’re overwhelmed, and correct us when we make a wrong turn—is vital for our survival. As I discovered in the corn maze, it’s best to stay close to the shepherd and flock: they’re the ones with the map who know where they’re going! On the other hand, as members of the flock, it’s important to notice when a lamb has gone missing.

After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  [John 10:4,16b,27 (NLT)]

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AS WE GATHER TOGETHER

Moraine Hills State ParkWell, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you. [1 Corinthians 14:26 (NLT)]

If you’re like us, when you visit a new church, you tend to sit toward the back so you can view the rest of the congregation and see when people stand, sit or kneel. If communion is served, you probably anxiously look around to see how it is done in that church. After all, we  want to worship “correctly.”

While there often appears to be a certain way to worship in a particular parish or a specific denomination, there is no one right way for us in our personal worship of God. At a church we recently visited, a young woman spontaneously stepped into the aisle and did a beautiful dance during a rousing praise song. The dance was her worship gift to God (and a blessing for the rest of us). While I pray silently when the pastor offers a prayer, I often hear people around me quietly adding their own petitions during his prayers. Recently, while the rest of the congregation sat, a woman stood and clapped her hands in praise during one of the songs. Some people shout a loud “Amen!” or applaud during the sermon when they heartily agree with the pastor while others quietly nod their heads. At our northern church, one woman’s “Amen!” at the end of every prayer can be distinctly heard above the rest of the congregation. At our Florida church, some people kneel and pray at the altar rail following communion while others quietly return to their seats for prayer. Kneeling in prayer, making the sign of the cross, genuflecting before entering a pew, or raising our arms during a praise song are all ways various people worship but not the way all people do. Nevertheless, if those actions come from the heart, they all are the correct way!

One size does not fit all in clothing and certainly not when it comes to either private or communal worship. Worship is an intensely personal act; we each bring our own unique worship style with us wherever we go. Some of us are staid and reserved while others are ebullient and demonstrative. The joy of the more expressive worshippers often enriches the worship experience for all and I imagine God prefers an enthusiastic “Amen” to a half-hearted one any day! Whether alone or with others, the important thing is to come before our Lord with love, passion, praise and thanksgiving.

In spite of my words, I’ll continue to play it safe and sit in the back when visiting a new church. After all, no one wants to be the person in the front row left standing when everyone else is seated! Then again, God doesn’t mind so why should we?

Worship is an inward feeling and outward action that reflects the worth of God. [John Piper]

Happy are those who hear the joyful call to worship, for they will walk in the light of your presence, Lord. They rejoice all day long in your wonderful reputation. They exult in your righteousness. [Psalm 89:15-16 (NLT)]

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ON A SLIDING SCALE

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. [2 Corinthians 9:7 (ESV)]

Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you. [Deuteronomy 16:17 (ESV)]

mourning dovesIn the midst of all the tedious and repetitive regulations regarding sacrificial offerings in Leviticus, we find evidence of God’s love and mercy. For several sacrifices, a distinction was made between offering requirements for the wealthy and the poor. Called korban oleh v’yored, it was a sliding scale for sacrifice based on a person’s economic position. In Luke’s gospel, for example, we learn that Mary and Joseph brought two birds as their sacrifice after Jesus’ birth. Had the family been wealthier, they would have brought a one-year old lamb and a pigeon or dove and, had they been poorer, they would have brought only two quarts of choice flour.

The purpose of those sacrificial rituals in Leviticus was to strengthen man’s relationship with God, not to impoverish him. Our sacrifices are to be offered lovingly, humbly, obediently, joyfully, and willingly; that can’t be done if we can’t afford what we’re offering. When a Florida church embarked on a massive building program several years ago, the pastor asked the members to prayerfully reach deep into their pockets to pay for the new sanctuary. He then reminded them that the amount given would vary considerably among his parishioners. For one elderly woman, an extra twenty-five cents a week would constitute as great a sacrifice as a $25,000 check from a retired CEO. Each was asked to give only as he or she was able. This ancient sliding scale of sacrifice tells us that the pleasing aroma of sacrifice has nothing to do with the size of the sacrifice but rather with the heart that accompanies it.

The Magi arrived in regal robes and offered expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus. There wasn’t a little drummer boy at the nativity but, had there been, the child playing his best “Pa rum pum pum pum” would have been as valuable a gift as those lavish ones. God in His grace does not discriminate against the poor or the rich. Moreover, let us never forget that, even more than our sacrifices, God wants our love and obedience.

You can always give without loving, but you can never love without giving. [Amy Carmichael]

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. [1 Samuel 15:22 (ESV)]

And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. [Mark 12:33 (ESV)]

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