Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. [Ephesians 2:20-21 (NLT)]

We believe in…the holy catholic church. [Apostle’s Creed]

snowy egret - clam passAs a little girl, I remember asking a friend what her religion was. When she simply replied, “Christian,” I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know whether she was Protestant or Catholic and, if Protestant, was she Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, or Episcopalian. She, however, kept insisting she was Christian. Like many, I was confusing religion with denomination. As a youngster, when reciting the creed, since we didn’t attend the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I wondered why we said we believed in the catholic church when we didn’t go there. It wasn’t until my confirmation class that I understood what believing in “the holy catholic church” meant.

After two decades of membership in a Christian church in town, a friend recently left it to attend another one. As one of the “prayer warriors” at her previous church, she received a weekly list of prayer requests. Within a week of changing churches, however, she stopped getting the list. She contacted the pastor, shared that her love for her brothers and sisters in Christ did not stop when she changed her place of worship, and asked to keep receiving the lists so she could continue offering her prayers for their needs and praises for their blessings. Unfortunately, her request fell on deaf ears. Perhaps, just as I did when a child, the pastor has confused one’s place and manner of worship with what it means to be part of the church.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ may belong to different churches and worship in different ways, but we all are members of the holy catholic church. That “catholic” with the small “c” is not to be confused with the capital C as in (Roman) Catholic. To avoid misunderstanding, some Protestant churches prefer to say “holy Christian church” when reciting the creeds. Regardless of the term used, this catholic (or universal Christian) church is what’s left over when all the church buildings burn down and the priests and ministers leave town. The term originates from the first century and the words of Ignatius of Antioch: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church.”

Indeed, wherever Christ is, there we find the church. Without a doubt, Jesus tells us to pray and there is power in prayer. Why anybody would arbitrarily decide who is allowed to pray for someone or whose prayers God will hear is beyond me. I’ll gladly welcome any prayer sent my way, regardless of who prays it or where they attend church. If they believe in and worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, they are my brothers and sisters and members of my church—the holy catholic church—the church of Christ!

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. [Galatians 3:26-29 (NLT)]

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May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NIV)]

This life, therefore is not righteousness but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on our way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the end but it is the right road. At present, everything is being cleaned. [Martin Luther]

great blue heronI looked at my two sons and wondered when the tow-headed youngster’s hair darkened, his brother’s brown hair turned gray, and they both got those wrinkles around their eyes. At what point did the children who once thought Kraft mac n’ cheese to be high cuisine become gourmet cooks? When did my reckless boys become so sensible and wise? They matured into men so gradually that I wasn’t even aware of the changes as they happened.

When I look in the mirror each morning, I can’t see how I’m any different than I was the previous day but one look at my old photos tells me that, like my boys, I am not who I once was. Transformation, whether internal or external, is a gradual process; it seems almost impossible to spot as it’s happening. Nevertheless, it takes place.

When we accept Jesus, we are justified: set free by the blood of Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are spiritually reborn. Our work, however, has just begun because we still sin. Like babies who must learn to walk, we then begin the process of what is called sanctification and learn how to walk in the steps of Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we gradually transform from newborn Christians into mature ones. Growing in grace, we become obedient to God’s Word, understand His ways and, little by little, become more like Christ.

Although challenges are often accompanied by spiritual growth spurts, for the most part, we transform gradually and may not be conscious of it. If we look back, however, we’ll probably see the difference our growing faith in Jesus has made in the way we conduct our lives. Somewhere along the line, we developed enough patience to deal with our tiresome neighbor, wisdom to counsel a troubled friend, self-control to step away from an argument, or peace in the midst of turmoil. We’ll realize how the Holy Spirit has steadily produced bountiful fruit in our lives and matured us from baby Christians into adolescents and beyond. We’ve come a long way; yet, we have a long way to grow!

At my age, I prefer the face and body I had twenty years ago to the one I have now. On the other hand, I prefer the woman I am today to the woman of decades past. While I don’t look forward to seeing more wrinkles in the mirror, I do look forward to the changes the Holy Spirit makes as I continue the process of sanctification. I’m not who and what I used to be but I’m still nowhere close to the woman God wants me to be.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” [John Newton]

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. [1 Corinthians 15:10 (NIV)]

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  [Philippians 3:12 (NIV)]

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Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. [Philippians 4:8 (RSV)]

 My son, sweeten thy tongue and make savory the opening of thy mouth; for the tail of a dog gives him bread, and his mouth gets him blows. [Story of Ahikar]

dogLast month, my husband and I attended a “Sweetheart” dinner at church. The men were in charge of the entire event and there were a few rough spots in the night. Then again, at the risk of being accused of political incorrectness or gender bias, most of the men probably were novices at that kind of event planning. Unlike the men, we women have had decades of organizing (and attending) school parties, PTA fund raisers, charity galas, birthday parties, showers, weddings, anniversary bashes, and other assorted celebrations. In spite of the glitches, there was much that went right and the evening was enjoyable and entertaining. Unfortunately, the woman sitting beside me kept criticizing how things were done—from name tags and table assignments to flowers and dessert. Her nit-picking comments became as annoying as the yapping of a bad-tempered dog and I thought of a bumper sticker I’d recently seen: “Wag More, Bark Less!”

Bad tempered dogs (and people) are nothing new; a similar proverb dates back to 500 B.C. in an Aramaic papyrus found in Egypt called the Story of Ahikar. “Wag More, Bark Less!” may be bumper sticker philosophy, but I wish more people (including me) did just that. After reading the qualifications and concerns of the candidates for our property association board, I was struck by how many were unpleasantly barking and nipping at each other rather than wagging their tails and showing me how well they’d work with one another and our management company. An on-line community newsletter was so filled with bark (and bite) that we stopped subscribing. Rarely are the letters to the editor in the newspaper anything but bark in the way of anger and criticism. While waiting at the bakery counter yesterday, an impatient woman yelled at the harried clerk and stormed away in a huff. Sometimes, it feels like we’re in a kennel full of angry upset dogs—yapping, baying, growling and snarling! Worse, once one dog (or person) starts barking, other dogs (and people) tend to join in the unpleasant clamor.

Like the woman beside me at that dinner, there are times I bark or snarl in disparagement, annoyance or anger rather than wag in happiness, appreciation, or compassion. In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we are responsible for what we put in our minds. Even in the bleakest of circumstances or worst of conditions, there is some small thing worthy of praise. Our job, as Christians, is to find it and think about it! Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit to help us in that task. Moreover, as my mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all!” Thankfully, the Spirit gives us the self-control to do just that! If we can’t wag, at least we can muzzle ourselves so we don’t bark!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. … If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. [Galatians 5:22-23, 25-26 (RSV)]

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My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. [James 2:1 (NIV)]

The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. [1 Samuel 16:7 b (NIV)]

house wren

Unless a bird is impressive and memorable, I give it little notice and classify it broadly by size and color. Yesterday’s devotion reminded us that people aren’t nameless/faceless little brown birds to God. I then asked myself if they are to me. Do I truly see the people around me for the unique and beautiful individuals they are or are some just little brown birds? Think of the quiet unobtrusive people we see every day but barely notice: the bagger at the grocery, the busser at the restaurant, the lady with the schnauzer, the fast food cashier, the fellow stocking shelves, the landscaper, the old man at the coffee shop, or the parking lot attendant. Do we simply look past or even through them without a second glance? I hate to admit how many times wait staff and sales clerks have introduced themselves only to have me immediately forget both their names and faces.

Do we only take notice of the eagles, cardinals, and great blue herons of life? When Samuel anointed Israel’s first king, it was Saul. Described as the most handsome man in Israel and taller than anyone else in the land, he may have been as impressive as an eagle but he was a weak leader and a cowardly king. In contrast, Israel’s next king, David, was more like a little brown bird. He may have been handpicked by God but he was overlooked and ignored by everyone else. When Samuel came to Jesse in search of a new king, he invited Jesse and all of his boys to a sacrifice. It was only after every one of Jesse’s sons was rejected by the Lord that Samuel learned the youngest boy, David, hadn’t even been invited to the feast. In spite of being anointed by Samuel, David continued to be insignificant to his father and brothers until he defeated Goliath. It was the little brown bird rather than the showy eagle who saved the Israelites with a slingshot and a few well-placed stones.

A pharmaceutical ad begins with psoriasis patients saying the words, “See me.” It’s not just people with skin conditions who want to be seen as individuals; we all want to be seen as the unique people we are. Consider Jesus; there were many who met a poor itinerant rabbi, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth, and never really looked at Him or listened to His words. That unimpressive little brown bird they so easily dismissed was God!

We don’t need a scope or telephoto lens to help us see the little brown birds of daily life and we certainly don’t need an Audubon book to learn their identities. We just have to open our eyes to the people around us, really look at them, acknowledge their presence, and listen to their words. In actuality, rather than elegant egrets or gaudy peacocks, most of us are more like little brown birds—ordinary, inconspicuous, and easy to overlook. Nevertheless, we are extraordinary in our own ways and we all want to be seen for who we are. God doesn’t judge by outward appearance and neither should we. After all, it’s the little brown birds that sing the sweetest songs in the forest.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. [Isaiah 53:2-3 (NIV)]

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murning dovesBut whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. [1 Corinthians3: 11 (NLT)]

Last Sunday, while worshipping in the beach gazebo, my attention was drawn to a nearby tree. A pair of doves kept disappearing into the branches only to reappear a few moments later. Back and forth they went, building their new house one twig at a time. Like the doves, those of us in the gazebo are slowly building something—a new church. Rather than twigs or bricks, we’re building it with people—one person at a time.

After worship two Sundays ago, we saw a fellow sitting alone on a park bench strumming his guitar. My husband walked over to him, listened for a while, and, introduced himself. The men chatted and the guitarist, Jimmy, said he was in the park that morning for his NA meeting. My husband then invited him to bring his guitar and join us for worship the next week. Self-taught, Jimmy is not much of a musician and both his story and attire told me that, while he’s not exactly homeless, he lives on the fringe of society. Lord, forgive me, I wasn’t happy about that invitation nor was I especially thrilled Sunday when our new friend was there at the gazebo. I’m ashamed to admit that I was afraid Jimmy’s presence would offend others in attendance.

While watching those doves build their nest, however, the Holy Spirit did some much needed work on my heart and I saw how judgmental and self-righteous I’d been. The birds didn’t examine each twig to see if it was perfect or ask its history or lineage. They just kept bringing twigs into the tree. Wondering how to build a church, I’d forgotten about the cornerstone: the first stone set into a foundation, the stone that keeps the walls upright and strong. The church’s cornerstone is Jesus and the answer to how to build a church is simple: Do what Jesus would do.

Jesus brought healing to the sick, forgiveness to the condemned, hope to those in despair, faith to those who doubted, and love to the unloved. Jesus neither ignored nor tolerated sin but He welcomed all sorts and conditions of people. He didn’t ask Peter, John or James about their pasts before calling them and not everyone around Him was what could be called “respectable.” Criticized by the Pharisees for the company He kept, He welcomed tax collectors, prostitutes, the unclean, zealots, Gentiles and Samaritans. He gladly spent time with sinners who wanted to learn from him or put their faith in him. Jesus welcomed me and I’m no different than Jimmy—my tarnished past just hasn’t taken the heavy toll on me that it has on him. Moreover, I still have plenty of work to do on the sin of self-righteousness!

So, how do we build a church? We do it by living the truth of the gospel, connecting with one another, serving, and speaking and acting in love. Most of all, we build a church by seeking the lost and welcoming all who come! When I asked my husband why he invited Jimmy, he answered, “That’s what Jesus would have done!” and he was right. Sunday, after Communion, I wondered how long it’s been since Jimmy felt welcome and appreciated, took the Sacrament, or was reminded that God loved him enough to die for him. As we finished our service and gathered our things to leave, his NA group came in to use the gazebo. We offered them our remaining coffee and rolls and invited them all to join us for worship next week. “Hope to see you next Sunday,” I called to Jimmy and, this time, I meant it!

For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost. [Luke 19:10 (NLT)]

Jesus answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” [Luke 5:31-32 (NLT)]

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Coronado beach - Bil PavlackaJesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” [Mark 1:29-31 (NLT)]

Last summer, we enjoyed beautiful sand sculptures created by Bil Pavlacka on Coronado beach. One had been constructed as a memorial to the seven sailors who died on the destroyer Fitzgerald that month. It was not Pavlacka’s first memorial; he’s sculpted sand to honor a Navy Seal killed in Iraq and to recognize the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting and the Paris and Brussels attacks. Those sculptures were labors of love—love for people he never personally knew but people he knew were his neighbors.

What a contrast his work is to the bumper stickers I recently saw on a truck parked beside us. There didn’t seem to be a minority group the driver wasn’t anxious to hate, insult or possibly worse since the back window also sported a “License to Kill Arabs.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 917 hate groups (such as white nationalists, black separatists, racist skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT and anti-Semitic zealots) currently operate in the United States. Based on his bumper stickers, the truck’s owner must have belonged to several of them. How easy it is to spout hate for people we don’t even know; yet, they are our neighbors!

We are called to love one another—not romantic (eros) or friendship (philia) love—but agape or unconditional sacrificial love—like the love God had for us when he sacrificed His son and the love the good Samaritan had for a total stranger. It has nothing to do with attraction, affection or even liking one another. Agape love isn’t emotional; it is a choice. It also happens be one of God’s commands.

Agape love is like building an intricate sandcastle; it takes time, effort, dedication and patience. On the other hand, hate is like those bumper stickers or a well-placed kick aimed at a sandcastle; it is thoughtless and destructive. Jesus doesn’t ask us to like everyone but He does expect us to love them—to be kind, considerate, understanding, patient, tolerant, polite, and good to them. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it on our own—the Holy Spirit empowers us to love one another as God loves us. Like building a sand castle, however, it doesn’t come easy and there will be times our efforts fail. Nevertheless, we must keep at it until we get it right. What we can’t do is take the easy way out with hate!

It is the duty of every Christian to be Christ to his neighbor. [Martin Luther]

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. [1 John 5:19-21 (NLT)]

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