The best you can do is good enough.

The Israelites did not complain. I don’t know how I missed it before but in the lengthy and detailed story of the building of the tabernacle, there is no record of complaint ever by the Israelites.

I’m not talking here about their day-to-day existence; I’m talking about when they were constructing the tent that would stand as a sign of the presence of God in their midst. The Israelites — who complained about everything; who wanted to return to Egypt and slavery so badly that they might as well have walked through the desert backward; who required a system just to hear the arguments they had with each other — do not seem to have complained at all through the entire construction of the tabernacle. The story says that when they were asked to build it, they gave out of their hearts freely, more than was needed, for the materials. And they seem to have organized amiably under the leadership of two lay persons who would direct the work. Through that whole process, they never complained, or at least no one complained enough to deserve mention.

Let me just say that again: There is no record of a complaint during the world’s first church construction project.

Talk about a miracle.

And just as noteworthy is how God and Moses received their work when it was done. Keep in mind that this was intricate, high-level craftsmanship directed by meticulous instruction and under the guidance of regular guys who had probably never built a tabernacle before. Yet, when they were done Moses’ response rates one verse (Exodus 39:43): “Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord and commanded. So Moses blessed them.” No tick list of change orders, no tweaking, no discouraged gee-I-wish-we’d-done-that-part-differently comments. Moses simply inspected it, saw they’d done their job faithfully and then blessed it.

This one verse is bigger than we may realize because here’s the thing: It isn’t possible — we’ve all been in enough construction projects to know — that they did everything perfectly. The work was too meticulous (God gave instructions right down to the design of the curtain holders) and the people were just not that bright. But at the end of the day, according to how the story is told, the best they could do was good enough. In other words, obedience trumps perfectionism. Every time.

After Moses blessed the work, God filled the tabernacle and completed it with his Presence (Exodus 40:34). This is also a profound point. Without God’s Presence, a perfect building would have been useless weight in a desert setting but with his Presence, an imperfect building became holy.

The tabernacle, then, becomes the Old Testament visual aid for being made perfect in love. God didn’t demand perfection in the details but seemed to grade on faithfulness. They did everything as the Lord commanded, the Word says, and my suspicion is that they were graded not on accuracy of detail but on the spirit of the thing. And on the spirit of it, they passed.

Which means that our call is not to perfectionism, but to perfect love. A good spirit. No judgment … just a commitment to being in community under the Lordship of a holy God.

So this month, our church begins in earnest a construction project that will take several months to complete. If God is consistent, and if he tends to act currently as he has in the past, then we will be graded in this project not on accuracy but on the spirit of the work. By that standard, I hope we pass and when we are done, I sure hope we will take the example of Moses,  accept the finished product as it is and move on to the work of leading people through deserts and into the promises of God.

In his book, The Beatitudes, Simon Tugwell writes,

God loves who we really are – whether we like it or not. God calls us, as he did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual make-up can render us more presentable to Him … His love which called us into existence, calls us to come out of self-hatred and to step into his truth. “Come to me now,” Jesus says. “Acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs. Quit projecting onto me your own feelings about yourself. At this moment, your life is a bruised reed and I will not crush it, a smoldering wick and I will not quench it. You are in a safe place.

This is a good word about a creative God who does not poke around in our souls for deficiencies. He does not look for the flaw, nor does he grade us as we do one another (or worse, ourselves). We know this because when God himself entered into the original construction project (creation), he called all of it good. There is no record of tweaking, just enjoyment of the process. And then when he was finished, he rested and that rest is proof that our Father is at peace with us, his creation. He can look at us and be at peace not because everything is perfect, but because He is perfect.

His example is our directive: Do your best, then rest in Jesus. Rest is how we demonstrate trust in the goodness of God. Rest is a willingness to trust God with the questions and to believe that the best we can do is good enough for him.

When is the last time you rested in Jesus an act of trust in God?

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What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding are our critical need in this season of the Church’s life. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

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Cast out demons and cure disease (or, what it means to be the Church)

We are the tabernacle of God.

The Bible tells me that when I take Christ into my life, I have the same resources available to me that the Israelites had and the Acts community had. Like them, I have the power of God. I don’t do this on my own steam. When I am filled with the Holy Spirit I receive power (Acts 1:8) —  the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision.

I have those same resources.

We who follow Jesus have the same resources as the followers of Jesus in Luke and Acts, who healed sick people and cured diseases and cast out demons and preached good news to the poor.

So why don’t we act like it? Why don’t I?

When the disciples came back from their first mission trip — having been sent out by Jesus to cure disease, cast out demons and proclaim the Kingdom — they complained to Jesus about a guy they’d seen who was also casting out demons. They wanted Jesus to tell this guy to stop; after all, he wasn’t one of them. You can feel the sense of competition in their comments. They also complained about some religious leaders and had the audacity to suggest that Jesus rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided maybe it was time to recast the vision.

We find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between Luke 9:55 and Luke 9:56. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles, but if your Bible has study notes, they probably mention this line.

As I said, it comes at a point in the story when the disciples are being sort of arrogant about the people who are not in their circle. Most Bibles say, “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version.

But some manuscripts insert another sentence so that the passage reads, “But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.’ Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

What a powerful commentary! Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often, that we don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. As believers, we do not know what we’re made of. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, so maybe that’s why we don’t embrace the Spirit. But it turns out — and this is good news! — the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives but to save them.

This is great news! The spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption!

This means that if you have received that glorious release from shame and guilt, then it becomes yours to give to the next person. You have that spirit. If you’ve been healed, then you are healed to become a healer. If you’ve been set free by knowing the truth, then you are free to share it. If that place inside of you that’s been dead for years is being brought to life again or if that relationship that was left for dead is being restored then you have received this as a gift. And the Word says, what we have freely received, we freely give.

We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people, change the world — to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the very spirit of Christ overflows from us.

We have forgotten that this good news is not ours.

This is ours to share.

 

(The image used at the head of this blog is the artwork of He Qi)

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The DNA of the Church

In the final verses of Exodus, of all places, we find the first hints of Pentecost. The people have just pulled together all their resources to build a tabernacle for the Lord. They have detailed instructions for crafting this most holy of places, which would become a sign of God’s presence among them. The tabernacle would also be their launching pad, a place from which they would move out of the desert and into the promised land.

When this tabernacle was complete, the final verses of Exodus tell us that “a cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. … Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted” (Exodus 40:34,36-37, NLT).

Depending on the translation, the word for “tabernacle” can mean a place to meet or a place that moves. That tells us that from the very beginning there has always been a relationship between the presence of God and the journey of faith. It also teaches us that God never meant for his tabernacle to get stuck in one place. It was built to move when God moves, always in the direction of his promises.

That scene from Exodus is our backdrop for Pentecost. The book of Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus telling his followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6-8, NLT). What God did first with the tabernacle in Exodus He is about to do with all believers, placing the laws and commandments of Moses into the person of Jesus Christ. Those who receive Christ into their hearts become God’s tabernacle. On that first Pentecost, this plan was confirmed with cloud and fire, just as with the Exodus tabernacle. And just like the first tabernacle, when he moves, we are invited to move with him.

Movement has been in the Church’s DNA from the beginning. The Kingdom of God is designed to move. It goes where God goes. He has no desire to make us comfortable out there in the desert. Nor does he intend to leave us to fend for ourselves.

Acts 1:8 promises power. “When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will receive power”—the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision. The power they had, we now have. When we accept the Holy Spirit into our lives we are no longer victims but people with power to move out of our bad circumstances and into better ones.

Of course, in Exodus it was not a person but a community that built the tabernacle and moved out of bondage and toward the promises of God. In Nehemiah it was a community that rebuilt the temple and restored the wall. In Acts, it was a community that received the Holy Spirit, then flowed out into the streets building that community from a couple-dozen to a few thousand in one day.

Clearly, the filling of the Holy Spirit is not first of all an individual, emotional experience but something given the community to strengthen and empower us for the work of the Kingdom. Paul asks the Corinthians, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, NLT). He says to the Ephesians, “Together, we are his house … carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord” (Ephesians 2:20-21, NLT).

The tabernacle is where God meets us and how we know when to move. As William Temple says, no one who is filled with the Spirit of God can keep that Spirit to himself. “Where the Spirit is, he flows forth. And where there is no flowing forth, he is not there.”

Is there a flowing forth in your life? Are you going someplace spiritually? Are you closer to God’s promises for your life than you were a year ago? Five years ago? Or are you still out there in the desert of indecision, waiting for one more sign? 

Meanwhile, God is calling us forward and His design for His children is not to make us comfortable but to make us great. May you be filled with the Holy Spirit and placed in the path of his promises.

 

This post first appeared as a Seedbed article on June 12, 2012. It has since been published in Encounter the Spirit, a Bible study for individuals and groups (find it at seedbed.com).

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Church is a verb.

The tabernacle as we find it in Exodus was meant to be a sign of God’s presence among the people and a signal tower for his plan. Once the tabernacle was complete, God came into the House and filled it and a cloud rested over it with fire in the cloud so all the people could see it. And the Lord told them, “When the cloud moves, you move.”

Depending on which Hebrew word for “tabernacle” we use, it can mean either a place to meet or a place that moves. That tells me God never meant for his tabernacle to get stuck in one place. It was built to move.

In other words, when God moves we move.

What I learn from my desert ancestors in Exodus changes what I understand about the nature of the Church. If “church” is designed to move, then it is more “Verb” than “noun.” Nouns sit. Verbs go. A noun is something I come to and sit in. A verb is not a monument but a movement.

Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says I go to church. “Church as a verb” says I am the church. Are you a noun, or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says someone somewhere is supposed to provide the programs and I am supposed to come to them. “Church as a verb” says I am a functioning part of a body together with a whole lot of others and a partner in shaping my own spiritual growth. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says someone somewhere is supposed to provide me with mission opportunities. “Church as a verb” says what motivates me ought to motivate me. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says the church owes me something. “Church as a verb” says if anyone owes anyone anything, I owe Jesus. Not to earn my salvation but because of what he’s done for me. My mission is defined by what Jesus has done for me. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” is always looking for what we used to have. “Church as a verb” is looking for what’s ahead. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says you come here and we’ll show you Jesus. “Church as a verb” says we’ll come to you and be Jesus. Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says, “Let’s go to church.” “Church as a verb” says, “Let’s just go.” Are you a noun or a verb?

“Church as a noun” says, “Going costs too much. Can’t we just send a check?” “Church is a verb” says, “Go! Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, I will be with you always.”

Church as a verb says, “When God moves, we move” — whatever the cost, whatever the commitment. Because it is only in following the Spirit, in moving with the Spirit and embracing change, that we find our pleasure, passion and purpose and bring pleasure to God.

(This blog was first posted in 2014. I repost it today in honor of the many churches preparing in this season for their Global Impact Celebration.)

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