Saturday, February 6, 2010

Our House

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2.4-5) 

Stacking Up

One summer during my early school years, our landlord bought a truckload of bricks and dumped them in our backyard. My brother and I waited to see what they’d be used for. Several weeks passed and there they sat. Unable to resist the urge to do something with them, we set out to build a brick fort by stacking them in vertical rows. We actually got further than we should have. It was nearly shoulder-high before the whole fort crashed down, sending us to our mother to tend to our scrapes and bruises. She was not pleased. “What made you think you knew how to build a brick fort?” she asked. After she patched us up, she went out to oversee the clean up and saw what we’d done wrong. She showed us how bricklayers stagger bricks atop one another to stabilize them. “If they’re not put together in a certain way,” she said, “they’ll never stand. All you were doing was stacking up piles.”

Since this is the closest I'll likely ever come to building anything of bricks, it’s always the first memory that springs to mind when I read 1 Peter 2. And it’s not a bad one, either. In Peter’s scenario, God is the bricklayer and we’re the bricks, which should be a comfort to us. We leave the construction expertise to Him by serving His purpose where and how we’re placed. It’s also a bracing reminder He’s in charge of the design and soundness of His work. Given our childlike lack of knowledge and skill, were we to build His house we’d no doubt resort to stacking up stones and end up battered by a collapsed brick pile. Paul also taps into this metaphor in Ephesians 2.22: “In [Christ] you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” In other words, our role is not in the doing. It’s in the being, availing ourselves to God’s work. When we commit to this, He’s able to use us as He sees fit and we’re able to fit snugly and securely in His plan.

A Place for Every Brick

Anyone who’s ever been made to feel unworthy or superfluous by self-appointed brick stackers will find solace in Peter and Paul’s house metaphors, because God’s acceptance is the foundation for both. Peter introduces his by comparing us to Christ, “the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him.” (2 Peter 2.4) And Paul sets the stage when he says, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” (Ephesians 2.19) Both encourage us to disregard how others identify or label us because manmade ID tags don’t apply. We identify with Christ, the living Stone, or in Paul’s case, “the chief cornerstone.” (v20) Paul’s reference directly connects to Jesus’s self-identification when He refers to Psalm 118: “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read the Scriptures: "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes?"’” In this light, feeling or being rejected becomes a proof point that we are indeed like Christ, living stones precious to God and worthy of use.

In the construction of God’s house, there’s a place for every brick, and every brick is perfectly placed. Since the work is never completed, it’s impossible for us to discern its final design. Therefore, it’s unwise to dismiss others or allow others to dismiss us as unsuitable for God’s use. No doubt some of these lively stones are chosen and placed for more decorative purposes. But others are selected solely for their strength and usefulness in creating tension that holds the entire edifice together. Because we are all built on the living Stone and each of us in his/her own way functions as a living stone, we can’t forget that this project is an organic process that requires constant refinement and embellishment to accomplish its original plan. Where we’re placed and what we’re asked to do inevitably changes us in unexpected ways. Some of us grow less flippant and more earnest. Others of us lighten up and learn to be more accepting. But if we’re truly alive to God’s purpose, sooner or later, we all come to recognize what we must do to ensure the house He’s building will continue to rise and endure.

Carrying On

A couple years ago, Walt and I visited Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudí’s famously unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. Walking over to the site, we weren’t sure what to expect and talked most of the way about how strange it was that hundreds of craftsmen have worked for nearly a century on a building that had no congregation. There was no place sufficiently completed to house worshippers, which made it the ultimate “build-it-and-they-will-come” plan. As we circled the interior, watching artisans carry on Gaudí’s work, Walt observed the cathedral was as much theirs as the legendary architect’s. “These people will die before it’s finished, too,” he said. “But they’ll die knowing they played their part in finishing its construction.”

Playing our part as lively stones makes God’s house our house. Each of us is one of millions upon millions of bricks jointly fitted together. We are built on generations of older bricks and placed so future bricks can build upon us. It’s not ours to be concerned with stacker mentality or opinions. These people have promoted themselves into site foremen and junior architects. They’re not essential to the process and unaware of the grand design. Their schemes and aesthetics will be lost to time, while God’s plan will reach total fruition. Look back at Ephesians 2.22. We are “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” He lives in us, which is what makes us—the stones in His house, our house—come alive with His Spirit. At the end of the day, what anyone else thinks won’t matter. Knowing we played a part in carrying on God’s work will.

Workers in La Sagrada Familia. Just as their contribution to Gaudí's work makes it their own, playing our role as lively stones in God's house makes it our house.

(Next: Fasting)

Thursday, February 4, 2010


One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. (Psalm 27.4)


Here’s a little exercise. Steal away to a quiet place free from any intrusive visual and aural stimuli. Close your eyes and “look” at God. Chances are the first images you see correspond with those implanted in your youth. He/She is a “god”—an immense, translucent Entity enthroned in Heaven. Once your eyes adjust to His/Her brightness, God takes on one or more personages you personally embrace: a Parent, Creator, Friend, Savior, et al. The abstract quickly takes on a concrete, finite form. But keep looking. Allow those pictures to melt away until the boundaries confining God become meaningless and a more transfixing portrait emerges. He/She becomes less defined as a Being than a Presence, an ineffable feeling of pure love, light, and perfection—in other words, unparalleled Beauty.

Looking at God, then, involves gazing into the Presence to absorb its purity and power in ways that confound articulation or descriptors. When we “behold the beauty of the Lord,” as the King James Version renders Psalm 27.4, God’s majesty and might prove all encompassing and unsurpassed. He/She truly becomes All in all, the Essence of our lives and world. Before we trip the light fantastic into metaphysical hype, though, we must ask why gazing upon the beauty of the Lord is so important. The answer is fairly basic and utterly practical. When we see God in all His/Her beauty and conclude He/She is All in all, we also see God is All we need.

Expanding Our Vision

David’s image of dwelling forever in God’s house to gaze on His/Her beauty arrests us by seeming out of context. Psalm 27 is about a man repeatedly thrust into ugly situations. Verse 2 describes evil men advancing to devour him, while armies besiege him and war breaks out against him in verse 3. Yet these woes are couched in the defiance proclaimed in his opening: “The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” Thus, David remains sure the cannibals and aggressors “will stumble and fall;” despite the assaults, “even then will I be confident.” And where does David locate his wellspring of assurance? He finds safety by gazing upon God’s beauty. Envelopment in divine splendor shields him from earthbound harm. He writes in verse 5, “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.”

Modern photorealism puts us at a great disadvantage in terms of expanding our vision of God. David and the other ancients find it much easier to shake their literal-mindedness and perceive God as something other than imaginary. Their image is surreal in the strictest sense, meaning “more than real.” They describe God in superhuman terms because His/Her beauty and attributes exceed human bounds. Isaiah 59.1 says, “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” We read in Deuteronomy 33.27, “The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” And Psalm 121.3 and 5 says, “He who watches over you will not slumber... The LORD watches over you—the LORD is your shade at your right hand.” These visions emphasize God is too big, timeless, and tireless for human comparison—too enormous for walls, too powerful for words. We need to see that. And once we do, we mustn’t ever forget it.

Whom We’re Dealing With

Learning to gaze upon God’s beauty goes beyond aesthetics. In fact, while we can’t help but be awestruck by it, admiration isn’t the point. The more we train our faculties to perceive God as something Other than us the better we grasp Whom we’re dealing with. Heightened awareness of His/Her boundless beauty increases our faith in His/Her boundlessness. Just as there is no end to God’s beauty, we see there is no end of His/Her power, perfection, and most of all, love. God’s reach exceeds human scale. God’s hearing supersedes mortal capacity. God’s protection is impregnable; His/Her support never weakens. God is impervious to fatigue. He/She overshadows our every moment and move. When we gaze at the infinite beauty of God, we see these and innumerable other attributes that assure our wellbeing and progress.

Psalm 27.4 brings to life the benefits of picturing God’s presence as our hiding place. As ugly and impossible as things get, we are ensconced in inexplicable beauty. Darkness cannot penetrate its light. Armies and aggressors cannot challenge its supremacy. In effect, we’re blinded by beauty. We’re aware of troubles encircling us, but their threats are eclipsed by divine perfection. God is our light and our salvation. Whom shall we fear? Of whom shall we be afraid?

Gazing at God’s infinite, perfect beauty sharpens our awareness of His/Her infinite, perfect power and love. It hides us from ugliness and eclipses fear.

(Next: Our House)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17.32-33) 

The Processional of Life

Variations in Christian worship are an endless fascination for me. Were it possible, I could spend the remainder of my life roaming from church to church, satisfying my curiosity about “how we do.” From the bare-bones simplicity of urban storefront services to the outsized splendor of cathedral rites, I’m equally intrigued by their vast differences and understated commonalities. I’ve found the most striking similarity to be the processional, because it exists in some form in nearly every liturgy. At its most elaborate, it initiates worship. A retinue of acolytes, singers, laity, and ministers proceeds down the sanctuary aisle in a symbolic approach to the altar. In services where the Eucharist serves as the centerpiece, the entire congregation makes its way to the table, where it partakes of the Communion elements. But even churches that prefer a less ornate, formalized order of service include a processional in their worship. This typically comes near the end of the experience, when the preacher concludes his/her sermon with an invitation for those in need of prayer to “come to Christ.”

Walking plays an essential role in our worship by replicating the processional of life. We are always moving forward, heading toward something we hope will be better, healthier, and happier for us. The future, bright with promise and untarnished by reality, beckons and its call cannot be refused. Yet the moment we step into the future it becomes the present. “Now” is always a moment of evaluation. It’s seldom what we anticipated; there are always nuances and complexities we didn’t—or couldn’t—foresee. Now we’re faced with new things to learn and adjust to. Our comfort level is sharply reduced. Many times, we recognize what’s behind us is much worse than where we are. But the strangeness of this new place sets off longings for “the good old days,” regardless how bad they really were. And this uncertainty raises speculation about the future. Will the next step be just as challenging as this one? Probably. Consequently, we often enter the present and freeze. But the processional of life has tremendous inertia. It pulls us ahead against our will and pries us free of what we cling to. Thinking we can overpower the forward process of time and existence is a dangerous idea that can completely immobilize us. This is what Jesus means by “Remember Lot’s wife.” (Luke 17.2)


We all know the story. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, has settled in the plains of Sodom, just beyond the gates of a corrupt city whose residents enrage God by threatening two angelic visitors. Lot's guests warn that God intends to destroy Sodom and advise him to move his family immediately. (Lot doesn’t realize he’s built his home on unstable soil with large sulfuric, highly flammable deposits.) The day of destruction comes. The ground explodes, sending plumes of blazing minerals into the sky creating a fatal firestorm. As her family runs for safety, Lot’s wife stops to catch one last glance of the city going up in smoke. A white-hot deluge of sulfur pours over her and she’s instantly petrified into a pillar of salt.

The magnitude of God’s wrath and craven behavior of Sodom’s men invite much speculation about what compels Lot’s wife to look back. She’s typically painted as a materialistic woman who can’t bear leaving the riches of Sodom. Since nothing in Genesis suggests she was faithless or shallow, however, I think she gets a bad rap. Her mistake was stopping to evaluate what she was losing, when she should have proceeded post-haste to protect what she had. She exemplifies all of us who get trapped between what was, is, and will be. After mentioning Lot’s wife, Jesus says, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Staying where we are is what kills us. Minimizing what we know and possess thus far to gain more knowledge and security ahead saves us. In the processional of life, releasing our hold on what we have is how we preserve it. It keeps us moving forward. It keeps us alive.

Keep Walking

In 2 Corinthians 5.7, Paul writes, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” (KJV) This implies two things. First, we trust God’s direction entirely, even when it conflicts with everything that disputes its wisdom. Second, it indicates we internalize what we experience as intuitive knowledge rather than rely on visibly factual proof. In other words, we don’t need to see it to know it. This is a tough discipline every believer struggles to develop—in part because it completely defies our biological instincts. As a species, we are hunters and gatherers. We collect things and build imaginary trophy rooms where we display our holdings: prized memories of triumph and success, as well as despised scars that symbolize survival. We carry these things with us, picking up more and more as we go. That by itself isn’t a problem. It’s when we stop moving to haul out our baggage and look at what we’re carrying that we get into trouble. Digging through the past is what gets us stuck in the now.

Much of what we carry will remain with us always. Memories of every kind linger at will. But much of our collected past also burns off as we move ahead. Stopping to search for what’s lost, hoping to imprint its image in our minds leads to feeling torn about moving ahead. What if that cherished memory gets away from us and we’ll never find anything like it again? What if that scar totally vanishes and we no longer resemble who we were? But must we repeatedly look at these things to retain them? They are part of us; we know them even though we may no longer “see” them. Pausing to revisit the past puts us at war with the inertia of existence. Life pulls us forward. If, like Lot’s wife, we continue to fight the processional of life, we’ll get left behind. What we desperately wanted to fix in our mind’s eye will be lost, and we’ll be lost, too—stranded out of time, stuck somewhere between then and now while life marches on. Keep walking forward by faith. Remember Lot’s wife!

We carry what we've learned and experienced with us. It's part of us. Stopping to preserve past trophies and scars strands us in the now and jeopardizes our future.

(Next: Beauty)