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Some second thoughts

The sole purpose in me sharing these thoughts about God’s house with you is rooted in the desire to return to the fulness of the meaning and therefore the implications of the fact that we are the church or God’s house. Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation and the master builder and we are both his co-workers and also the raw material of the construction.

I know we know that, but my question is do we really know it? I have often made the statement, and on numerous occasions I heard others make the statement, that we can’t join a church or attend a church because we are the church, yet I have not always experienced it practically.

Church, God’s house, is not structure or programmes. Church is living, pressurised, sometimes confused but also joyful people who are on a pilgrimage of discovering how loved all of them are and that they are on this individual and also corporate journey out of their prison to self into the freedom of God’s children.

The only function that structures and programmes have is to facilitate that, they are never ever supposed to be the focus. We are not supposed to put them first and then invite people to join in should they meet certain requirements. We invite people in as the Trinity invites everybody and that is with wide open arms and an open heart into relationships where we care for one another.

Paul’s call is: Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God. I will share more about how I see Christ receiving us, but the following poem strikes my heart. It is quite a long one:

Forty meters Lord

You were supposed to keep that distance between yourself

And the man whose body was ravaged by leprosy.

Forty meters.

Society and religion said that it would be OK if you noticed him and looked at him from a distance

As long as you did not come close to him.

Forty meters.

That would be safe enough for you.

How alone and abandoned he must have felt Lord,

With his body and his life scarred by festering leprosy.

Marked as an outcast, ashamed and isolated with a deep yearning in his heart for connection, acceptance and acknowledgement.

How desperate he must have felt.

So desperate that he ignored the forty meters and came to you, crying out,

“Lord if you want to, please heal me!”

You were not scared of the forty meters, Lord.

You were not fearful, careful or ashamed.

You did not look the other way.

No, you could not wait to cross the forty meters.

You gently put your hand on his broken body.

Being leprous and broken is not only limited to Biblical times, Lord.

All of us go through life with some brokenness in our hearts,

A brokenness that we hide from one another because people can hurt us.

Life hurts. Then we carry on with our journey, day by day.

And we smile, but the smile goes no further than our lips,

It cannot find its way to our eyes.

Our hearts protect the forty meters between us and our neighbour.

Often even between us and you.

It is like a silent secret that we have hidden in our hearts;

Too scared that life will judge us, reject us,

Or become tired of us if we reveal too much of ourselves.

Thank you, Lord, that you are not put off by our forty meters.

It does not scare you.

Thank you that you don’t become despondent when you know about our silent secret.

Thank you that you even search for us and find us

When we try to hide inside our hearts.

Thank you that you gently stretch out your hand to touch us

When we are too tired to pray and call out to you

Even when our weeping becomes angry tears.

Thank you that you are gentle with our silent secrets,

Wanting to touch them and heal them.

Thank you that you do not become impatient,

But hold us until we have the courage and ability to walk

The forty meters back to life.

To rejoin it and to live it with joy in the way that you have in mind for us.

“Lord, if you want to”, he cried.

“Lord if you want to”’ we cry in our brokenness.

Thank you for the tenderness and understanding in your eyes when you gently respond:

“I want to.”

As you cross my forty meters Lord, reach for me and find me and embrace me,

Will you in and though me also cross the forty meters of my neighbour.

Getting back to God’s house. Whatever our view or opinion about his house might be, the undeniable fact remains that he is actively in the process of building it. Our understanding of it might be, and possibly is, warped with divergent views of it, somewhat like (seeing) but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror; yet there is just no getting away from the fact that he is building his house.

It also seems as though everything will culminate with its completion. One simply has to look at the following declaration in one of the final chapters of the Book of Revelation to accept this reality:

I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, descending out of the heavenly realm from the presence of God, like a pleasing bride that had been prepared for her husband, adorned for her wedding. And I heard a thunderous voice from the throne, saying: “Look! God’s tabernacle is with human beings. And from now on he will tabernacle with them as their God. Now God himself will have his home with them—‘God-with-them’ will be their God!

I don’t know about you, but when I read the title of this blog, The House of God, my default response is to think about and equate it to church as we know it. Everything that I then read or hear about this topic is filtered and understood from that vantage point. Church is his house.

That which I want to share now may seem critical of structured church, but in my heart I know it is not so. It is a cry to be willing to be poured from vessel to vessel, as Jeremiah prophesied to the Moabites:

Moab has been at ease from his youth; He has settled on his dregs, And has not been emptied from vessel to vessel, Nor has he gone into captivity. Therefore his taste remained in him, And his scent has not changed.

David Orton days the following about this scripture:

The metaphor of being poured from vessel to vessel is taken from the ancient process of winemaking. Wine would be left for a period in a vessel to rest on its lees, the impurities slowly settling to the bottom. And then at the discretion of the winemaker the wine would be poured off to another vessel, the process occurring repeatedly until the wine was purified.

But we are mistaken to think that we have escaped Moab’s condition…. Refusing to be poured from vessel to vessel we have – as our text explains – retained our flavour, and therefore our aroma has not changed.

The unfortunate reality is that we have made something of church as we practice it that does not always resemble his house; it is often more our house than it is his. Years ago, I read something that Eugene Peterson said to this effect. It spoke to me then and it has remained with me ever since. It is taken from his book The Contemplative Pastor – Returning to the art of Spiritual Direction:

People are uncomfortable with mystery (God) and mess (themselves). They avoid both mystery and mess by devising programs and hiring pastors to manage them. A program provides a defined structure with an achievable goal. Mystery and mess are eliminated at a stroke. This is appealing. In the midst of the mysteries of grace and the complexities of human sin, it is nice to have something that you can evaluate every month or so and find out where you stand. We don't have to deal with ourselves or with God but can use the vocabulary of religion and work in an environment that acknowledges God, and so be assured that we are doing something significant.

At first reading it sounds pretty harsh, but the fact is that he raises some very valid points. We will not be wise if we are not willing to stop and allow an honest heart search about where all of us are at on this matter. We must not think that we are above prioritising our structures and programmes above God’s agenda. I have both seen too much of this happening and also practised it myself. In the process I have seen people sacrificed for the cause of the local church, something that should never have happened and also something that we must take ownership of.

Peterson touches on a very central matter that goes much deeper than we possibly want to acknowledge and yet if we don’t give it the attention that we should, the status quo will remain. He talks about mystery and mess. These two m’s are a reality to mankind that we need to face head-on.

There is no doubt that God is a mystery, simply meaning that there is so much about him that is way above our paygrade to grasp. He has revealed himself to us as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the countless relational ways that we experience it and also as the Creator of a vast universe that is still expanding at the rate of 300,000 kilometers every second (it expanded 3 million kilometers while I was typing those last three words!). Yet there is so much about him that our minds cannot lay hold of. Paul says:

Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It's way over our heads. We'll never figure it out. Is there anyone around who can explain God? Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do? Anyone who has done him such a huge favor that God has to ask his advice? Everything comes from him; Everything happens through him; Everything ends up in him. Always glory! Always praise! Yes. Yes. Yes.

In spite of this mystery, we have a deep desire to connect with him, to be in a relationship with him and to know him. The other side of the coin is of course the fact that he wants to be known and that he invites us to be on the journey of getting to know him.

If one now adds the other “m” into the equation, our mess as Peterson says or our brokenness, it aggravates the situation. Because we chose to go our own way, a way that is independent from God (and that is a universal fact, no exclusions – all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way) we are totally self-referential and self-reliant.

So, what we have now is a humanity who wants to interact with Mystery yet at the same locked up in ourselves, aware of our inadequacies, our need to remain in control of the way we understand and do life and actually fearful and shame based. Like our first parents we do not like to face the depth of our need to be redeemed from our captivity to self and then we follow the route described by Peterson. We genuinely want him to dwell amongst us and us with him, but now we tend to build him a house that does not challenge our personal issues so deeply and also one where we can determine the agenda and even the requirements to be part of that house.

It is exactly what happened after the great flood described in Genesis. God tells them: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Their response is: Come, let's build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let's make ourselves famous so we won't be scattered here and there across the Earth. God sent them out, but they wanted to build a secure city as a place of safety. That was the beginning of structuring Babylon or the world system as we know it today.

We must not think that we are any different from those builders. We face the same uncertainties as they did, and we have the same desire to build a place of safety. We must be honest and be willing to acknowledge that it is possible that the house that we are building might have elements of worldly wisdom. Our intentions are pure, I know that, but if I look at some of the outcomes of our work it seems as though the structures that we are building do not resemble his house.

The redeeming truth though is the fact that God, in his great love and care will never abandon us. As He promised, he is actively at work to build his house. If we are willing to ask for an ear to hear what he is saying and for a heart to yield to him, he will show us what needs to be changed in us. I am saying to be changed in us rather than what should we do differently. All of this is a matter of heart change, not behavioural change. Changed behaviour will be the fruit of a changed heart.

I will share more in my next blog.

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Stephan Vosloo
Stephan Vosloo
Jun 29, 2023

Thank you for this very meaningful post Johan. I think you have connected with the essence and I was blessed. I was reminded of the scripture from Haggai that I never really understood properly at the time when God was speaking to us from it: "You have spent a lot of money, but you haven't much to show for it. You keep filling your plates, but you never get filled up. You keep drinking and drinking and drinking, but you're always thirsty. You put on layer after layer of clothes, but you can't get warm. And the people who work for you, what are they getting out of it? Not much— a leaky, rusted-out bucket, that's what. That's why GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies…

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