Contentment & Joy in “The 2 or 3”

seeds

“Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.”
– Proverbs 17:1

Today, in commenting on another person’s blog, I ended up navigating back here, and reading some of my old posts. One in particular, “Let’s Start a Grassroots Revolution of Love!” got me thinking (again) about Jesus’ intriguing statement “…where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Like the many revolutionary statements that Jesus and his early disciples made about love, this is one that, because it is so counter-cultural to our world, we often dismiss.  Even if our minds agree, our hearts say, “yes, but…”  Something in us continually is drawn back to “bigger is better.”  We don’t just want to build a super tall tower, we want to build one that “reaches to heaven.” In business, we are often not content running a mom-and-pop shop, but must expand it to a chain, despite the fact that we slowly lose contact with those we serve until we become an impersonal institution with no personality or soul.  Walk into Starbucks and then walk into the local coffee shop owned and operated by Joe who you know, sit in both and soak up the atmosphere.  It won’t take long and you will feel the vast difference, despite whatever the original founders of Starbucks may have intended.

The same happens in church life. We enjoy life in a small gathering of believers, but (often) automatically assume that more will be better.  There is a huge industry here in the U.S. of “church consultants” that is built around “church growth,” with the assumption that bigger… and bigger… and bigger… and YET BIGGER… is better. How tragic!

“But growth shows life,” you might say, “and growing means a church is healthy.”  True, growth is a sign of health, but unbridled growth is not.  In an ecosystem, unbridled growth of a species makes it an “invasive species” which destroys the ecosystem as a whole.  In the body, unbridled growth of cells is cancer, which likewise destroys the body as a whole.

Contrast this with the above-quoted words of Jesus – “two or three” – so counter-intuitive to all we are taught and all we instinctively believe!  There is a caveat though: the 2 or 3 can not be just “gathered,” but must be gathered “in my name.”  I believe this phrase “in my name” has much greater depth of meaning than just that we profess or say the words that our gathering is “in His name.”  Let me give an example.  Suppose I were to die.  Then suppose after my death, that my loved ones were to do something (anything) “in Margaret’s name.” The assumption would be that whatever they would be doing would be some cause near and dear my heart, and that they would be making every attempt not only to do what I would have done had I lived, but also to do it in the manner I would have done it.  If I loved to laugh, and had a wry sense of humor (which I do), than an event in my name that was humorless would not fit the bill, and those who knew me best might even be angry that it was done “in my name.”  The same is true if some cause were done “in my name.”  If, for instance, someone decided to “kick kittens” in my name, or even worse “kick calico kittens,” in the world of those who know me best it would be an utter sham!  Those who know me the very best would say, “They don’t know her at all!  This is not in her name, despite what they say!”  They would refuse to participate.

Even if it was something, my friends were not generally opposed to, like eating a McDonald’s hamburger, even if it were something they would normally participate in, if it were done “in Margaret’s name,” those who know me, knowing I really hate McDonald’s hamburgers, would say “This is a horrible way to remember Margaret.  This is NOTHING like anything she would want to do.  Let’s do something else.”

On the other hand, if my friends sat in my studio, made clay pots, played music and those who couldn’t play listened or sang, surrounded by frolicking calico kittens, and cracking wry, sarcastic jokes, and laughing until tears came out of their eyes, eating grilled salmon, roast lamb, hummus and lentil salad, and drinking a glass of a full-bodied red wine, or a cup of dark roast fresh ground coffee, or a glass of clear cool water from the well, and did this all while enjoying memories and talking about things that matter in life, than at the end, those who know me the very best would KNOW that this was truly a gathering “in Margaret’s name” – no questions asked.

In the same way, two or three gathered in the name of Jesus is not just words.  It must be in a context of knowing Him, and caring for those things He most cares about. And what does He care most about?  Well, when a man or woman is about to die, the thing they speak of typically reveals what they most care about. As I have written, elsewhere, as Jesus prepared himself to face an excruciatingly painful and torturous death, He got down to what mattered most:

“Love each other.”

But here is the sad and tragic part: we so often settle for far less than love in the Body of Christ.  We settle for “general affinity” or “cordiality.”  So often we can be “bigger” but in that largeness can feel utterly alone.

“Better a dry crust where there is love.”

Today, my husband and I often meet in groups of 2, 3, 4 or 5 “in His name.” Our meetings may not be “a meeting” – we may eat, we may laugh, we may tell stories about friends or memories, we may think of something we learned, or an insight we had.  Somehow, I think that is something that Jesus looks on, as he sits in our midst, and the one who enjoyed a meal with sinners says “Yes, this is truly in my name.

Today I remembered a time when we first began meeting in this way, and though I knew it was good, though I often reminded myself that He said “2 or 3” was enough, I still felt, at times, not quite legitimate, not quite like we were really the church.  Today, as I looked back on those days, I realize I have changed.  I find myself quite content being gathered together, just 2 or 3, in His name.

Revolutionary Love

Hate is Easy; Love Takes CourageNote: This post was written as a comment in response to a fellow blogger’s post about his longing to be heard and accepted, and his realization the very desire to be heard erodes our ability to listen, and in turn, to truly communicate with those around us.  The blog post that elicited this response can be found here.

For many years now I have been mediating on the linkage between being seen and heard, and being loved… and conversely, seeing and hearing another, and loving them. My first memory of this connection came from reading Viktor Frankl’s reflections on love:

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

To love another means to see them, and to truly see them, they must be heard. This dynamic of seeing and hearing is also central to the extension of justice. At the core of injustice is the capacity and power to silence and make the oppressed invisible. To refuse to listen, to refuse to see.

On the other hand, to hear and to see the Other is the very essence of love. This was the miracle that happened on the day of Pentecost; it was not the tongues of fire or the healing of the sick, or the raising of the dead that were the miracles, as wonderful as those things were. No. Rather, it was that a band of infighting misfits – who wrangled over who was greatest, while the One who was Greatest anguished over his impending torture and murder – these competitive, compulsive misfits were suddenly empowered from above to love one another. Did they do it perfectly? No, but they did it profoundly – so much so, that they “turned the world upside down” (according to their critics).

If Jesus had stopped there, had stopped at the greatest commandment and the second that is like it, perhaps we might find some loophole that would allow us to feel (mostly) comfortable with his command. But he went further to something so revolutionary it is still scoffed at today, and if not openly scoffed, it is conveniently ignored. Meditating on the linkage of seeing and hearing with love, justice and mercy, I find these words of Jesus astounding:

“Love your enemies.”

He Who Not Against Us

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and the reason is what it always is: I’ve been busy. But this time it’s not been the usual, normal busy. It’s been mind-numbingly busy. And in the midst of that, I’ve had help come from the most unlikely of sources. Which got me to thinking about the words in the title of this blog post:

“He who is not against us is for us.”

You might be saying, “Wait, is that right? Isn’t the correct quote ‘He who is not for us is against us.’?” Well, in fact Jesus said both. But to look at Christian culture lately you might think He only said the later quote. I often feel like Christianity becomes more about what (and who) we are against, rather than what (and who) we are for. We define ourselves by what group we perceive as our enemies, and then further define ourselves by the things we oppose in that group. But if we are, in fact, supposed to be following the revolutionary statement “Love your enemies,” then who can we really consider our enemies? We can become so bent on showing ourselves right, that we make enemies where there need not be any.

Another quote came to me this morning, and woke me up to write (it’s 5:30 am as I write). I was thinking about help coming from unlikely sources, and I thought of this other thing Jesus said:

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

When I lived in China doing nonprofit work there was a lot of suspicion of the motives of foreign nonprofits by the government, but amazing help sometimes came from the most “unlikely” sources. Sometimes it was the most hard-drinking, cynical, communist party cadres that would open doors for us. Sometimes people who we most assumed would be “against us” were in fact “for us.”

Here’s another thought to build on the last, when Jesus was questioned about when the kingdom of God was coming (at some time in the future), He answered another revolutionary statement:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

So this kingdom of God that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering wasn’t some far off pie-in-the-sky place, it was a current reality. And actually (to be a language geek for a minute) the verb tense used in the passage in the original language was present tense as is correctly indicated by the translation “are entering.” So what I believe Jesus was saying was not “the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom, and you will not.” But rather He was saying, “As we are sitting here, and you are criticizing these prostitutes and tax gatherers, they are acting in ways that allow them to enter the present reality of the kingdom of God now. They are experiencing it, while you are not.” In other words, in the act of experiencing Jesus and in experiencing the love and truth of God through the person of Jesus, these outcasts were “entering the kingdom.” Thus the outcasts were proceeding the criticizers into the kingdom of God.

So, as I meditate early this morning on the kindness and compassion I see expressed in most unexpected quarters, I want to say:

Truly I tell you, the cross-dressers, unemployed, homeless, gays, liberals and yes even the atheists are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.

I’m seeing some of them in the present moment experience and respond to the love of God (maybe either realizing or not realizing that it is the love of God), while some of those who profess to know God are full of vengeance, bitterness and anger. Everything has become about what is hated, and we’ve forgotten to love.

Let us return. Let us return to patience and kindness. Let us forsake jealousy, bragging and arrogance. Let us stop seeking our own – our own lives, our own perspectives, our own views. Let us return to forgiveness. Let us hate injustice, while we embrace truth. Let us return to faith and hope for our fellow man, and enduring patience when considering their many flaws (knowing our flaws too are many). In short, let us return to Love.

Botany

the flowers of the field

the Flowers of the Field (c) 2007 muddart

“And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!” – Matthew 6:28-30

In my last post I wrote about the “birds of the air” and how in the original language, the passage has the idea  of fixedly observing the birds, as contrasted with casual observation.  I then considered whether Jesus might have been  speaking more than rhetorically, and actually suggesting that his hearers go out and intently observe the birds.

But he did not stop there.  In the passage above, the word translated as “observe” likewise is not a casual observation, but has a fuller definition of “to learn thoroughly.”  From a literary perspective, such compelling language, used in a parallel structure, strongly suggests that Jesus was indeed urging his hearers to go and personally take time to meditate upon the birds and how they live and eat, and upon the flowers and how they grow and flourish.  How do they accomplish what they do?  How do they do their amazing feats?

In the observation of these things the answer is hidden on how to not be worried or anxious or stressed about this life and all its most important concerns.

Have you ever taken some time to carefully study the birds and flowers in light of these questions?  What did you learn?  If you never have, why not try it?  Let me know what you find out.

Bird Watching

birds of the air

The Birds of the Air – (c) 1999 Muddart

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? – Matthew 6:25-27

Recently, I came to the conclusion that this passage and its context could easily be studied for a lifetime.  I myself have been  meditating rather intently on it for a number of years now, and I continue to find greater depths to its underlying meaning.

It began some years ago when I was going through a long period of very tight cash flow.   Every payday, when I had to figure out how I was going to make a little money go a long way, I would sit down with this passage to try to quiet my soul and get peace in the midst of uncertainty about the future.  I learned a lot of things both from these verses and the ones that follow them.

Did you know, for instance, the Greek word that is translated as “look” in this passage actually means to “observe fixedly?”   Or that there are other Greek words used elsewhere to denote more casual observation? When I discovered that this was the literal meaning, it got me thinking: maybe Jesus wasn’t speaking rhetorically, maybe he was actually suggesting to his disciples to go and intently observe the birds.  Maybe he was telling them, and me as well, that if we went and carefully observed the birds we would learn something about how not to worry, and how instead to trust God to supply our needs.  Have you ever meditated on the birds of the air?  What did you learn?  If you never have, it’s worth the try.

Love vs. Ideology: What Motivates Us To Gather?

“If I… can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, … but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)

Recently, my husband and I set out to do something very simple: open our home to friends and family weekly for a meal. The meals would be simple ones that we could make a lot of and keep warm, which in turn would allow people to come when they could and would accommodate whoever happened to show up. While we have kept our hearts open to where this may lead, our idea was not to have some sort of “church meeting” but rather to create a place of community, hospitality and love where all were welcome.

This gathering is really a very small beginning, and we are learning about how to create a place of community, and have much to learn, but very quickly it went from simple to complex. I don’t wish to go into details, but much of the complexity came from the thought that we should do certain things, otherwise our gathering was invalid. Without sharing any details, I wrote to some friends that I felt as if “a whole pile of religious obligation was being laid on my doorstep.” And may I say, lest any jump to quick conclusions, that the religious obligation was not “institutional” in nature, that is not related to the “institutionalization” of church life, but part of common teachings about how house churches should function. And the ideas themselves were not bad ones, but several questions arise in my heart from them, such as: What motivates us to gather? What informs the form that our gatherings take? How do we know when we really get it right?

What strikes me is that much of the rhetoric around so-called “organic” or “New Testament house church” meetings becomes about doing it “right,” “according to the Biblical pattern,” etc. I think this is laudable to desire something that mirrors the 1st century church, and is biblical. But a focus on the “the right way” becomes an ideology, and even if our form is precisely what the 1st century believers did, if that’s as far as it goes, it will be all wrong. These men and women were remarkable. They “turned the world upside down,” and indeed changed history. But I fear sometimes in our zeal to have what is “biblical” we put the cart before the horse.  For instance, we can be so bent on having a meeting where “everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation…” etc. (1 Cor 14:26), that we miss the point of why Paul was writing about these things, which is found in 1 Corinthians 13. Over and over again, in scriptures it is emphasized that the aim is love. Love for God, love for one another, and love for the people of the earth. I have deep and high regard for the Bible, but our understanding of its teachings will only be complete when our starting place and our goal is our desire to love as Jesus loved.

The thing is we tend to speak of love as a kind of an add-on. We emphasize many other things, and then as an afterthought we say, “and yes, love is important too.” In the body of Christ when we try to emulate the 1st century church, we focus on form, structure, church government, modern day apostles, discipleship, groups of 12 (G12), cell groups, house churches, the gifts of the Spirit, church planting strategy, etc, and then because we know we should, we say, “and of course we need to love too…” And if anyone brings up the importance of love, there will be all kinds of ways to get off that subject, and back onto the important subjects like “What was the structure of the biblical new testament church?” or “What is the biblical strategy for planting churches?” or “What does a New Testament gathering look like?” All these are indeed important, but if we have not love…

When I wrote these things to some co-workers, one of them, wrote back the following:

“…the simple things are most often neglected while often being the most significant and profound. No planning, special gifts or strategy is needed, it’s something that every person can do, no matter their physical or mental condition.”

He then wrote about his sister Joy, who was severely handicapped from birth and was not able to walk, speak much, or to be easily understood when she did speak, and yet Joy had an amazing and deep ability to love everyone.

And this may be precisely why we prefer to focus on something else.  Simplicity does not appeal to our spiritual pride. We want to feel we have something that no one else can do, that we have fathomed some deep mystery which others have yet to see, but to have God tell us to do something that a child can do, or a mentally handicapped person… Well, that just isn’t good enough. We will do all the extremely dramatic things such as “surrendering our body to the flames” or “giving all our possessions to the poor” or “moving mountains” with our faith rather than do that simple thing of loving our neighbor. This we brush aside. All the while not really appreciating that truly loving as God loves is more difficult and more powerful than even the most awe-inspiring miracle. When Jesus said “as I have loved you, so you too ought to love one another” He was asking us to do the impossible. The impossible. We need this to sink deep down into our spirits.  I believe sometimes the weak are better at this precisely because they know they are weak — they are used to depending on God, and so His love flows more freely. He wants to bring us to the same point of realization of our weakness as He brought the disciples to in the days after His death. When we realize we are completely incapable of what He is asking of us, we will cry out to Him, and in that day, He will answer.

I wrote another essay titled “Only Love Can See.” I believe this is a key principle in understanding New Testament church life. The band of misfits who birthed the first church didn’t know how the church would be administered; they didn’t know they would meet in houses; they didn’t know even what it meant to be an apostle (except that it meant ‘to be sent”); they only knew Jesus, and His love, and that He had asked them to do the impossible: to love Him and one another with the same kind of love that He had loved them (alarming!). This is why I believe they waited for the Holy Spirit, and when they received Him, they were empowered to love. All strategy, all form, all structure, all administration, and all miracles — all flowed out of this love. Yet, we still think we can emulate the 1st century church form and what we see of their strategy and we will experience first century church life. We cannot. It is only love that gives us eyes to see the intent behind these things. We must start with love, and love must also be our aim. Anything short of that is nothing.

Let’s Start a Grassroots Revolution of Love!

Beautiful does not always mean the big and the “spectacular.” Beauty is also found in the small and “insignificant” places that others might walk by and never notice.

Recently I was reading this blog post entitled “a letter from an exhausted/exasperated young person who has a complicated love/hate relationship with the church” by a blogger named Ron.  As I was reading, I started thinking about the many people I’ve talked to and  blogged with who have experienced similar frustrations to Ron.  What hit me as I was reading is the the theme I hear again and again, which is people looking for authentic, genuine community.  Ron speaking of his own generation put it this way:

…there are a couple things young people simply won’t tolerate. They will not put up with what they deem to be a lack of community and/or authenticity, and they will not abide anything that appears to simply be going through the motions or the semblance of just being part of some spiritual/religious club. They aren’t interested in towing the party line that has no bearing on their social and cultural experiences.  And–most terrifying to previous generations–they aren’t threatened by threats of “It has to be this way or nothing at all.”

Why?

Because this is a generation of self-starters and micro-entrepreneurship. They have no problem whatsoever starting up their own things. And they have been. And they are. And they will continue to do so.

[Note: I encourage reading the entire blog here.]
 This particular passage got me to thinking about a theme I’ve been ruminating on  for some years, the whole idea of grassroots movements.  The term grassroots is a fascinating metaphor if one thinks about it.  It is a picture of something working and spreading beneath the surface and below notice.  We don’t need anyone’s permission to love one another, and we don’t have to have an established “institution” to create a place of community.  Actually to be the Church, it appears we only need two or three to gather in His name, so there is no reason not to start a counter culture movement of love and community.  In fact, it seems to me that a grassroots movement is already underway of people who have gotten worn out by dead religion, and want to really experience the kind of life that Jesus, Paul, James, Peter and others talked about.
So, let’s just do it!  Let’s just decide that we are going to live this way even if we can only find one or two other people who want to live in authentic community with us (“two or three… in My name”).  Not saying it will be easy, because learning to love isn’t as easy as we like to think (even our closest friends and loved ones do stupid things that make them hard to love at times, and, dare I say it… so do we).  But that being said, and drawing on the same illustration as Ron did in his blog, we can decide to be Joshuas and Calebs, who saw the same giants that the other 10 spies saw, and yet were able to believe that they could enter the Promised Land.  We too have a Promised Land: a land described in John 15, 1 Cor 13, 1 John 2, Hebrews 10:22-25, John 17, and many other places.

 

“We are surely able to take possession of it!”

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