Author’s Warning: the following diatribe may step on your toes, anger you, disgust you, challenge you, or cause you to judge me, lose respect for me, make you give off a sigh of relief…or you may merely shrug your shoulders and say ‘big deal, get original.”
Here is my starting point: we do not find God in church.
Before anyone starts sifting through stones to see which ones is best for casting, pause and permit me a moment to expound on what I see as the truth that we do not find God in church.
For you see, I believe, it is the other way around. We ‘find’ God (a misnomer) and out of that flows a living community incarnation called church. For no “model” of church will produce God or God’s life in us. It is in fact our life in God – our shared life in and through Jesus – that becomes the building blocks of the expression called ‘church.’
Because we have gotten it backwards (thinking we find God in church) has led us to become dependent, or codependent, upon church – both the building and the denominations – as well as church leaders for ‘creating’ God’s life in us. We have done this so much so that we become passive in our own spiritual growth. When we rely upon others to “impart” God’s life to us, we become spiritually lazy; veritable spiritual coach potatoes.
We not only end up waiting for others to show us how to grow spiritually but we even begin expecting others to do the work for us (as if spiritual growth can be imparted magically with no effort or desire on our part). And to top it off, we then end up complaining about the lack of “fruit” or growth and as a result of our spiritual passivity we then tend to give up on the most important relationship we will ever have in our lives – the one we have with God.
It is vital that we become active in our spiritual journeys; we must hunger for Jesus and desire to experience what it means to live deeply in God and to follow and imitate Jesus (the word “Christian” means “little Messiah”). And the great work that we do is the mere desire; for grace comes and draws us closer to the One Who is closer than our own skin.
I can tell you about my experience of God, but I cannot impart my experience of God into you; you have to have your own experience of God. Others can offer guidance, but the truth be told, there should be 8 billion spiritual experiences happening, namely each and every person in the world must have their own personal (and therefore unique) experience with God.
In our modern age, it seems everything has become too easy, too fast to obtain that we have surrendered the daily, lifelong journey of a life with God. We have settled. We have settled when we allow our relationship with God to become an historical event instead of what it has always been meant to be – what Jesus showed us it could be – a dynamic, living, breathing, loving, bare bones to the wall, intimacy with God!
And this relationship is about God sorting things out within us. God transforms us and by God’s grace and doing (not ours), we learn to live contentedly in God’s love and Providence instead of in the realm of worry, hurry, and religious structures. But to have this life, to be this type of people, we must each and every one of us be friends with God. Reading spiritual giants, reading about spiritual giants is all good, but at the end of the day, I am held accountable for my own spiritual growth.
I must actually have a relationship with Jesus rather than merely talking about having one.
Paradoxically, I cannot do this alone, but I do this within myself. Community of some sort nurtures our connections to God, but we must in some form of solitude come face to face with God Who is the Ground of All Being (see Paul Tillich). And rest assured, God longs to have this dynamic intimacy with each of us. God pines for you and me more than we desire God.
So hold on to this Truth: God starts it; God sustains it; God waters it; God nurtures it; and God completes it. Our role is to “show up” and surrender to this Living God of love.
Here come some toes stomping: forget the rules, the rigidity, the exclusiveness, the holy rollers club techniques, the loopholes that allow the church to reject me because I’m a democrat, a republican, an anarchist, gay, black, white, yellow, red, brown, poor, rich, a dope fiend or a drunk, all tatted up or whatever.
Jesus longs for you, as you are, where you are. And it is up to God to do the transforming, not me. If we seek Jesus we will be rewarded with an intimacy that is beyond comprehension, beyond words, beyond being. But for this kind of intimacy, there is one basic “requirement” – we must surrender to God, plain and simple.
And as we surrender (daily, if you are me), we learn to depend upon the power of God’s in all things and for all things. And as we do this we gradually learn and discover the fullness of life – the fullness of God’s life – within us. I believe that when Jesus said that he came to bring life and to bring it abundantly, that is what this aspect of life first and foremost that he was talking about (see Gospel of John 10:9-11).
This abundance of God’s life, both in and through us, is not based on circumstances. For circumstances do not make or break us, they merely reveal us. And in this ‘revelation’, God reveals more and more of the divine life to us, and the more God reveals to us, the more we grow in love with and become more like Jesus.
This reality – this dynamic of all of us experiencing God and having Christ’s life in us – leads us to experience called “church.” And rather than trying to figure out how to “do” church, force community to happen, or even worse creating a place where a false sense of community and conformity is commonplace, something else happens – we begin to focus on God’s love and what Jesus is doing inside each of us and through this, we learn to be with each other in God’s love and from this comes authentic community – a living church.
God is the God of community. Some examples include the Trinity (God in relationship with God’s own self), the ancient Hebrews who were brought together by YAHWEH – which literally means I AM WHO I AM – and were made into a people by this I AM and of the I AM; and then there are the apostles, the disciples, and the early church. All these forms of community, of “church”, flowed from people being called into deep, intimate relationship with God and concurrently with each other.
The paradox here is that we must have our own intimate encounter with God, but what authenticates it is our connection to and relationship with others.
“Church” is our experience of God and God’s love flowing freely into us, through us, and out of us through Jesus – and towards a wounded world in desperate need of God’s grace.
The world does not need the experiment called “church” that is about being rudely right, or smug or pious or having a holier-than-thou attitude that has become so symbolic of the frozen chosen lost in a holy huddle – that is not what Church is supposed to be. Church is meant to be a symbol of our collective experience of God and the unconditional love found in Jesus. Without God’s life in us, in each of us, our expressions of church can become administratively-based religious country clubs, where the broken, hurting, and addicted are excluded from membership. Without authentic intimacy with God, church becomes a place of self-righteous ethics dictated by appearances rather based on the crazy love of God.
We sometimes forget the very people that hung out with Jesus when he walked the earth would nowadays be frowned upon and judged right out of our congregations. And lest we forget, Jesus – the man who said if you have seen me, you have seen God – hung out with the whores, the traitorious, the forgotten, the poor, the unclean and the ostracized, and the unholy not the righteous. The only occurrences we know of Jesus ever judging anyone is when he was confronted by the pious hypocrites of his day, those who thought they held the keys to the rule and reign of God’s love and grace.
God’s life in us – coming from our intimacy and friendship with Jesus – will by default pour into us the very nature and love of this God Whose love is relentless and Whose mercies are never-ending. As we become a people filled with this God, we are bound to imitate the lives of the early followers of Jesus: turning the world upside-down with divine love.
Now that is Church.
When we are with God, allowing the Spirit to change and mold us like the Master Potter, we are transformed. And when we share what God is doing inside of us – instead of focusing on what we think others “should” be doing – God uses that to draw us all together, to grow the circle of a place called “Church.”