Church Incarnated: Spirits and Song

Church Incarnated: Spirits and Song

A few days ago, I posted an article entitled Has the Internet Made Attending Church Obsolete? If you haven’t yet read it, you can do that here. In fact, I’d encourage you to do so. This article will make much more sense in light of that.

In that article, I explore the idea that in the given circumstances we find ourselves, churches are rapidly replicating the in-person experience in an online format. (Take the service you would normally have, record video of it, broadcast it through the magic of the internet.) 

This phenomenon made me wonder: if we can simply replicate the experience of going to church online, what is the point of physically attending a church service?

 

I find that to be a fascinating question. It’s also slightly unsettling. Moreover, it’s a perilous question to give voice to if you’re a pastor. After all, your self-worth job security is often positively and perfectly correlated to attendance. Better attendance equals more job security. (Also, better attendance equals more impunity with respect to your leadership. “It’s working, so I may do what I desire without any checks or balances.” But that’s another conversation for another day.)

 

It turns out, many of you find it a fascinating question, too.

 

And while I received comments and DMs with your answers to that question, I thought I would attempt to provide a response of my own.

 

But, first, let’s talk about the big problem with the typical answer we give to the topic of church attendance.

 

 

The Big Problem.

We all have our reasons for desiring (or lacking any desire) to attend church. Some are fleeting, while some are systemic. And, in many ways, those reasons are irrelevant to anyone but you. That is, they matter to you, but to someone else, that reasoning may appear absurd.

 

But that’s somewhat beside the point. Important. Sure. But most important to you.

 

Therein lies the problem. 

 

Most people respond with reasons why they like going to church, but they don’t move beyond that. At the end of the day, it seems that our individual preference is to attend church. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. But let’s call it what it is: a partiality.

 

I mean, the audio quality of my computer speakers is horrid compared to the quality of the speakers used by the church I attend. So, on that basis alone, I can prefer to attend a church service in-person. That does not mean, however, that the online experience is less beneficial, edifying, engaging, or worthwhile. It just means I need better speakers. And I would most definitely prefer that my computer had better speakers. 

 

But do you see the conundrum?

 

In answering a question like this, teasing apart the difference between our deeply held preferences and what we believe is an essential reason for attending a church service can be a difficult task.

 

Look no further than the number one reason people feel attending church online isn’t obsoleting attending church in-person: relationships.

 

Many people cited relationships were a reason to attend a church service. I don’t dispute that in any way, shape, or form. (Except as an introvert at heart.) You can develop relationships with people who attend church.

 

But.

 

It’s not a matter of if you can do that by attending church in-person. It’s not even a matter of if you like doing that. Of course, you can. And, of course, you just might like it, too. 

 

The real question, though, is if it is essentially only church attendance that provides relationships. Strictly speaking, it cannot be that attending church in-person is better than attending online because it helps develop relationships. After all, you can also develop relationships at the gym, a sporting event or league, a bar or public house, or any other number of places. So that doesn’t seem to be a plausible explanation for the internet failing to replace the experience of church in-person.

 

Why?

 

Because relationships are possible everywhere. Attending church is simply another avenue to do achieve that end.

 

But that raises another question: is it simply that you prefer to develop relationships with other church-goers over those who do not attend church? 

 

That’s a fully loaded question. 

 

Our answer, though, may be somewhat frightening to even ourselves. But it also evades answering the original question. How? Because you can develop relationships with other church-goers outside of a church service. As such, attending church in person is not essential in developing relationships with other church-goers. (Aside from the fact that church-going is a prerequisite for being labelled a church-goer. So, for argument’s sake, let’s consider church-goer to be an equitable term for a believer.)

 

It’s also not a matter of whether you prefer developing relationships with other church-goers in-person. Rather, the question I posed in my initial article, made it a matter of whether or not the Church is providing something at their in-person experience that cannot be replicated in the online format. And, given the whole-hearted acceptance of using video-conferencing technologies such as Zoom to establish new (and continue old) community groups, it seems that the online format is an adequate substitute for in-person gathering.

 

Technology seems to have made it possible to, basically, replicate everything. And that includes relationships.

 

With all of that said, it’s important to ask and answer the question plainly: is there anything from the in-person experience that online church cannot replicate? 

 

Yes.

 

Phew.

 

I know, right? I was beginning to think that I really thought gathering together for weekly church services is fruitless, too!

 

I don’t think that’s the case at all, by the way. But, my reasoning might not make much sense when you first hear it.

 

So here it is.

 

 

My Answer.

Because it’s physical.

 

Yes, you read that right. I don’t think that attending church in-person is rendered obsolete by replicating and broadcasting services online.

 

Why?

 

Because attending church in-person is physical.

 

Wait. What?

 

I know that seems a cheap trick. Being at church in-person isn’t obsolete because…it’s in person?

 

That’s right.

Well, almost.

Being at church in-person isn’t obsolete because it’s physical.

 

I told you it wouldn’t make much sense at first. So let me flesh that out a little more.

Let’s get spiritual.

The spiritual is thin. It’s tough to grasp.

 

Have you ever noticed that many people offer explanations of spiritual things by speaking more airily and less concretely?

 

In many ways, this makes sense. After all, the spirit of God is often written about (in the Bible, even!) as though it is wind. Sometimes it’s described as something similar to breath. One minute it’s there in full force, and the next it has diffused into a low-pressure, seemingly non-existent entity.

 

It also blows where it will.

 

How do you talk about something like that without the assistance of advanced degrees in fluid mechanics and pneumatics?

 

In a breathy, airy, nebulous kind of way.

 

So, it’s no real surprise that we struggle to put words to why going to church in-person isn’t rendered a moot point in the face of technological innovation.

 

Perhaps the real reason we struggle is that we tend to leave our faith in the realm of the spiritual. That is, in some strange way, our faith is nothing more than an idea and words. (Love. Peace. Faith. Hope. You know the buzzwords.) However, to be blunt, those ideas and words are nothing if they are not acted upon. In fact, you and I can think and talk about our faith for an eternity, yet all of that intellectual exercise may never make a difference in how we live.

 

We can think and never bring those thoughts to bear in our lived lives. In fact, that is often the reality for many church-goers.

 

I think Father Richard Rohr says it best when he writes the following:

 

“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living.”

 

In short, our thoughts don’t usually change our behaviour. I assume he’s not suggesting that thinking never accomplishes anything substantive. However, I think it’s a fair assessment. Thought typically doesn’t precede action. Consider that some scientists estimate that up to 98% of our existence is governed by unconscious biological processes, and Fr. Richard Rohr seems to be on to something.

 

But that’s not where his thought ends. He goes on to complete it by writing this:

 

 “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

 

I think he’s correct. 

 

And that’s precisely why I think we need to get physical.

 

Let’s get physical.

The physical is thick. It’s robust.

 

Have you ever noticed that people don’t really have too many difficulties describing the physical world around them? 

 

Sometimes the appropriate word is difficult to find, sure. In general, though, it’s not too hard to describe what we observe. For example, I can typically recall every shot I took during my last round of golf. I can describe it’s lie, what tree my ball was behind, trajectory, shape, sound, yardage, where it landed, whether it rolled out, plugged, or spun back, and even qualify it with descriptions such as perfect, good, bad, and awful. And I can do that for all 75-80 shots I took over the preceding four hours or so. I can observe, remember, and describe the physical. 

 

It’s relatively easy to do with the physical.

It’s hard to do with the spiritual.

 

But the physical is spiritual.

 

And that’s often a lost concept. Especially this side of the Enlightenment. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

 

Look no further than the opening pages of the Scriptures. In the first two chapters, we are regaled with a poetic description of the movement of spirit and the innervation of the material world. In fact, the Scriptures go one step further and describe humankind as a complex amalgam of the two. That is, they are both spirit and material.

 

We were formed from the dust.

God breathed life into us.

 

We are spirit.

We are matter.

 

We are thin.

We are robust.

 

We are tough to grasp.

We are concrete.

 

The physical is the spiritual.

The spiritual is the physical.

 

It’s all right there for us to read.

 

But it’s not just the physicality of creation.

It’s important to not simply create a theology of the physical realm based on two chapters of the Bible. (Although, we’ve created other doctrines on far less.)

 

So, let us look at three distinct events that the entirety of Christianity hinges upon; the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.

 

The incarnation.

Christmas. A baby in a manger.

 

Spirit clothed in flesh. In a nutshell, that’s the incarnation.

 

Although, that doesn’t seem to do it justice, does it? How do you explain the mystery of spirit innervating flesh? 

 

(In slightly more airy and ethereal terms, I suppose.)

 

Any way you consider it, though, the incarnation of Jesus isn’t a miracle because of the spiritual invasion of earth. Genesis 1 talks about the spirit hovering over the face of the deep. The spirit has always been there. The incarnation of Christ is a miracle because of the unification of the spiritual with the physical.

 

The real miracle is the physicality of the divine, not the spirituality of it.

 

But it’s not simply the reality that this describes the incarnation of Jesus, it’s the reality that is you. You are spirit clothed in flesh. Or is that spirit-infused flesh? (See what I mean, words are difficult when it comes to the spiritual.) Perhaps, though, our lived experience can give words to understand the incarnation of Jesus.

 

To be Jesus was to be human, and all that term entails.

 

Blood and guts.

Crying.

Vulnerability.

Awkwardness.

Growth.

Stagnation.

Anger.

Love.

Sexuality.

Indifference.

Complexity.

Bodily fluids.

Irrationality.

Hobbies.

Parents.

Friends.

Siblings.

Food.

Digestion.

Work.

Injury.

Nationalism.

Imperialism.

Travel.

Tiredness.

Religion.

Sleeplessness.

Taxes.

Technology.

Rejection.

Anxiety.

Betrayal.

 

Think about your own existence. What does that tell you about what it was like to be Jesus? It might not tell you everything. After all, we don’t live in first-century Palestine. Also, we aren’t Jesus. But thinking about your own existence might tell you something about his. 

 

The incarnation was not solely a spiritual event. 

It was also indelibly physical. 

Never forget that.

 

Oh, one more thing. That very physical incarnation led to another unavoidable human reality: death.

 

The crucifixion.

I think it’s important to note that the penultimate event of Jesus’ life was physical. 

 

His body was broken and beaten.

It bled.

It had thirst.

It gasped for air.

It spoke.

It forgave.

It was punctured.

It breathed its last.

It gave up its spirit.

It died.

It hung lifeless upon the cross.

It was removed, wrapped, and buried.

It was cold.

 

The crucifixion was not solely a spiritual event. 

It was also indelibly physical. 

Never forget that.

 

The resurrection.

If the penultimate event of Jesus’ life was the crucifixion, the ultimate event was the resurrection. The entirety of Christianity is based on the validity of the resurrection. (In fact, the Bible even goes so far as to suggest that if the resurrection didn’t happen, we ought to be pitied above all people.)

 

But it wasn’t solely a spiritual event.

It was physical.

 

The dead body was alive once more.

It walked from the tomb, scars and all.

It travelled.

It ate.

It digested.

It moved through walls. (Come again?)

It walked on the beach.

It cooked food.

It spoke.

 

It lived.

 

The blood it was born with, that was shed, coursed through its veins once more.

 

The breath that gave it life, that he gave up, was given back.

 

The crucifixion was not solely a spiritual event. 

It was also indelibly physical. 

Never forget that.

 

The events we base our faith upon are a very physical reality.

 

Let that sink in.

 

Your faith is far more than a spiritual reality. It is a physical one.

 

It was incarnated in the very fabric of creation.

It was made flesh in the human.

The miracle of the divine was that it was made flesh in the Son of Man.

The Son of Man tasted the physical reality of death.

The Christ rose, bodily, from the grave.

 

Your faith is based far more on physical realities than you may first realize.

 

And it is those physical realities that ought to shape our attendance of church. Attendance in the flesh.

 

 

 

So why has the internet not made attending church in-person obsolete?

Good question.

 

It took a while to get there, but there are two very physical realities that, I believe, are essential and not simply preferential when it comes to attending church in person: spirits & song.

 

Spirits.

I’m not talking about the spiritual realm, either. I’m talking about booze.

 

Wine, to be precise.

 

Have you ever noticed that our calendars come pre-loaded with dates to commemorate? Electronic or physical, all of them contain special dates.

 

  • In the United States, the fourth Thursday in November is, for all intents and purposes, a religious holiday; Thanksgiving.
  • In Canada, the penultimate Monday of May commemorates Queen Victoria’s birthday and is the unofficial start of summer.
  • On February 2nd, many North Americans wait for a groundhog to appear from his hole. When he appears, they read the signs to see how many weeks remain in the winter season.
  • On November 11 of this year, Sweden will mark National Chocolate Day. I will be celebrating privately.
  • November 11th marks a very different kind of day if your nation was involved in the Great War. On November 11th, 1918, armistice was declared. For over 100 years, we have commemorated that event with poppies and a moment of silence.

 

With few exceptions, the holidays of any consequence are instituted to commemorate a physical event of great importance. Quite often, those events are ones that altered the trajectory of human history. On July 4, 1776, the world changed forever. For better or worse, it changed. On November 11, 1918, the world changed forever. The day Queen Victoria was born, the world changed forever.

 

Some events changed the world forever. And on those days, we humans have a proclivity to do one thing: sample spirits.

 

Don’t believe me?

Google it.

 

Liquor sales spike in the days before New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, and other holidays.

 

But what if the physical event you are memorializing changed not only the world but the cosmos?

 

What then?

 

Commemorate it more often?

That seems right.

 

But what on earth are we remembering?

 

That’s a good question.

 

I said it earlier, but perhaps it’s worth repeating: holidays commemorate physical events of great importance, and they often involve spirits.

 

The Resurrection of Jesus is a physical reality that bears remembering. After all, we believe it altered the course of the cosmos. But it’s much more. The belief is that the physical event changed our lived reality, too. In fact, it gave us a glimpse of what is to come: another resurrection. But this time, it’s for you and me to be involved in. We won’t just witness it, we’ll live it.

 

It will be our physical experience.

A spiritual innervation of our dry bones.

 

So why celebrate that only once a year?

Why not every seven days?

 

That sounds like a good idea to me.

 

But why every seven days?

 

Because of the physical reality of another event: the Creation.

 

The rhythm of the physical reality of Creation is a cycle of seven days. Every seven days, everything refreshes. 

It begins again.

As the sun sets on one cycle of seven, another cycle of seven is given birth. 

 

Life.

Death.

New life.

 

It’s right there in the fabric of all things.

 

Every seven days we receive another chance to restore. 

Another opportunity to refresh. 

Another occasion to rest in the peace of God. 

Another moment to bring things to their fulfillment.

 

That fulfillment, in a personal sense, is your restoration. 

Your reinvigoration. 

Your resurrection.

 

That fulfillment, in a cosmic sense, is the restoration of all things.

Their reinvigoration.

Their setting right.

 

And it’s all possible because of physical events.

And the physical is spiritual.

Only it’s more concrete.

 

This is why we commemorate the Crucifixion and Resurrection every seven days. We incarnate the spiritual reality and cause it to manifest in our midst in a physical way. We memorialize this reality through the physical reality of Communion.

 

Communion.

You might call this Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Last Supper, the Holy Sacrament, or some other name I’m not familiar with. Whatever you might call it, though, it involves two very physical elements: bread and booze.

 

Okay, perhaps that was a bit crass. Communion, however, does involve bread and wine. (Unless you are a good Baptist. Grape juice all the way, baby!) And these two elements are symbols of Jesus’ body and his blood. (Unless you are a good Catholic. Then they aren’t merely symbols, they are the body and blood of Jesus.)

 

And what do you do with food?

You eat it.

 

And what do you do with spirits?

You drink them.

 

The material concretizes the immaterial.

The physical informs the spiritual.

The behaviour precedes the belief.

The food sustains the faith.

 

We might not fully understand how the Resurrection of Christ transfers to us. Heck, we might not ever come to comprehend the Resurrection of Jesus, let alone how it transfers to us. 

 

But you can engage in an undeniably physical re-enactment of the spiritual reality.

 

Imagine. Every seven days. The spiritual reality that we find difficult to understand being embodied within us.

 

We might not understand it, and thus we might avoid living it.

But if we start living it, we just might come to the beginning of understanding.

 

Imagine what life would look like if we ingested, digested, understood, and incarnated the Resurrection every seven days?

 

There is a benefit, because of spirits, to the spirit, when we congregate together. We manifest a deeper reality in every fibre of our being. It’s a collective remembrance of an event that changed the course of cosmic history. Not simply an intellectual exercise in the confines of self-isolation. It is a collective embodiment of transcendent reality.

 

And you cannot do that through the wonder of the internet.

 

But there’s something else that can’t be done through the internet: song.

 

Song.

Okay, YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and all the other streaming services out there might fight me on that last claim.

 

And they would be right to.

 

Songs are all over the internet. Want to listen to some of your favourite symphonic pieces? No problem. The internet has you covered. All the Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel you can handle. Have a desire for some heavy metal? If that’s your thing, the internet has what you want. The internet also contains everything in between these two vastly different genres. You get the picture, though. The internet possesses all the songs you could want.

 

So, what do songs have to do with attending church?

 

Well, it’s not so much about songs as it is about song.

Now, I know, it seems like I’m doing that thing pastors love to do: taking a noun and making it a verb. I’m not. Trust me, I hate it just as much as you. But I’m sure you’re wondering what the difference is between those words other than one being the plural form of the other. I’ll tell you.

 

But first, let’s add a definite article. See, it’s not so much about songs as it is about the song.

 

There, that’s better.

 

But, I digress. On to my explanation of the difference between songs and the song.

 

For the purposes of our conversation, songs are short poems or other sets of words set to music or meant to be sung.

 

In contrast, the song is the deep undergirding pulse of Creation. It is the rhythm, the hum, the bass note that is foundational to the functioning of all things. It’s a cadence that you and I are invited to participate in. 

 

And, as funny as it may seem, songs can often help us access the song.

 

But first, a conversation about breath.

Breathing is vital. If you don’t breathe, you don’t live.

 

What I find most fascinating is that there are two components to breathing. Breathing isn’t complete until you have both inhaled and exhaled. The technical terms for those processes are inspiration and expiration.

 

To inspire is to breathe in life.

To expire is to unleash that life into the world around you.

 

I like to consider the process of breathing when I think of Creation.

 

In the beginning, God spoke.

 

Before we speak, we often breathe.

 

So, what if God inspired before speaking, too?

 

The real question is, what did he inspire?

Well, nothing less than his breath, I would assume.

And what is his breath?

The Hebrew tradition would have us understand the breath of God as the Spirit of God. After all, the terms are used synonymously.

 

So, God inspired himself. He gathered all of his creative energy and drew it into himself. And then he unleashed it all through speech. He expired and life came to be.

 

And now a conversation about the song.

If you’ve ever read the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, you’re familiar with the creation of Narnia. If you aren’t, take a few hours to read the first book in that saga, The Magician’s Nephew. It’s a wonderous few pages of literature.

 

In that book, you read about the Creation of Narnia. Or, perhaps more correctly, the genesis of Narnia through song.

 

In the creation narrative, the God-figure, Aslan, moves about the darkness humming, singing, and calling all things to generate themselves from the darkened canvas surrounding him. It’s as if the whole world dances with the song. The notes extend to the material, and matter responds to the spirit.

 

The song gave that which was to come order and structure. 

It gave it vitality, energy, and a purpose.

 

Inspiration.

The song.

Life.

 

It’s no stretch to imagine the creation of all things as God writing a symphonic masterpiece. The 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen says it this way:

 

“All of creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit which is joy and jubilation.”

 

And that song persists to this very day. The rhythm, the hum, the bass note from the beginning is still resonating to this day. In a way, it’s the foundational structure of all things. The creative, generative energy of the breath of God persists unto this very day.

 

And he gave that same breath to us.

 

So we may continue the song.

 

And therein lies a vocation: continue the song.

 

So what does attending church have to do with the song?

Herein lies the delicate interplay between songs and the song.

 

When we sing collectively, we communally order our breathing. We orient ourselves to the rhythms of Creation that have been uncovered throughout the centuries by the saints and poets who came before us. 

 

I breathe in the same metre and time as the prophets who penned those words in bygone eras. I breathe out in the timeless cadence, joining the eternal order of priests, expiring the life and vitality of God into all things around me.

 

And when two or three of us begin to do that, the collective force of our unified breath begins to change the very atmosphere around us.

 

Can you sing on your own from the comfort of your own home?

Of course.

 

Can the collective breath coalesce while we are all engaging the musical content from the internet?

I don’t think so.

 

Is a live concert the same as watching the recording afterward?

No.

 

Why?

Because the collective breath changes things.

 

In unified singing, the world begins to change.

 

The immaterial will form the material.

The spiritual innervates the physical.

The belief determines the behaviour.

The breath provides life to the body.

 

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Sing.

 

Let all Creation be ordered around the flow of our collective breathing.

As spirit invades our lungs, let it be passed to those around us.

Let it invade every corner of the earth.

As we sing, let the song refresh, restore, and resurrect that which needs it.

 

There is a physical reality hidden deep within the very foundations of the earth. 

 

When we engage in the song, it’s as if we are swept up in a communal inhale and exhale. We take part in the rhythm of God. We recalibrate to the holy pulse of Creation. We refresh, restore, and resurrect Creation to it’s intended order.

 

How the internet can re-create that, I am not sure.

 

 

Spirits & Song: Why I believe the internet has not made attending church obsolete.

The reality is, attending church is physical just as much as it is spiritual. And therein lies what the internet cannot re-create: a physical reality.

 

Attending church isn’t simply physical because it is in-person, it’s physical because of what is done while we attend in-person.

 

It isn’t fundamentally about preference.

It ought to be about something deeper than that.

 

It isn’t centrally about relationships.

Those are achievable elsewhere, too.

 

It’s about the physical realities that are also spiritual ones.

 

Creation.

Incarnation.

Crucifixion.

Resurrection.

 

Our faith is predicated on physical reality.

Past events that have spiritual implications, too.

 

By attending church, we have the distinct privilege of incarnating the deep rhythms of creation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

 

We do this through spirits. 

We do this through song.

 

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped

WHO IS ANTHONY VANDERLAAN?

I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Has the internet made attending church obsolete?

Has the internet made attending church obsolete?

Disclaimer: This article is written to be a jarring exploration of the titular question. As such, the language I use is strong, snarky, and seemingly sarcastic. That is entirely purposeful. I’m exploring a deep question that, I believe, we have typically provided trite answers to. Accordingly, my aim is to create a bit of dis-ease with our long-held assumptions about why we attend church in the first place. With that information in hand, I hope you find this article to be thought-provoking. But more than that, I hope it leads you to a deeper, contemplative place; one in which you would find a depth of peace and joy.

What an unusual week, wasn’t it? I’ll be honest, I can’t remember a week like this past one; probably because, in my lifetime, there hasn’t been one like it.

I noticed this most acutely a few days ago when I was driving around town with my wife. As we were driving, I couldn’t help but notice one thing: every single church was closed.

Now, I know, that’s not too abnormal. It was Saturday after all.

But it was the same thing Sunday morning.

 

Sunday. Morning.

 

Sunday. 

Churches are closed.

 

And then I thought: so what?

 

Now, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? 

Well, at the very least I think it is.

 

To put it another way: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?

 

Some of us may respond with a resounding, “Yes, it absolutely matters.”

 

And you may be right.

 

Others of us may respond with, “Well, it’s understandable that they are closed for a time. We want to love people well, and we can do that best by staying away in order to ‘flatten the curve’.”

 

Great.

 

Let’s face it, we all have our own response to the closures of churches. But that’s tangential to the question I’m trying to explore.

 

Consider the proliferation of applications for the internet. With the advent of live video streaming through the multitude of applications that do that, geography is no longer a barrier to attending church. We can still get our weekly dose of melodramatic music and a message, sitting next to the same people we would anyway. Plus, we don’t have to mess around with parking and panicked people.

 

Hallelujah! Amiright?

 

So, I’ll ask it again: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?

 

With all this new technology at our disposal, what purpose is there to attending church?

 

I can consume ‘churchy’ content virtually.

I can hear a message from the Bible.

I can listen to and sing ‘Christian’ music.

I can stay connected and ‘in community’ from a great distance.

I can avoid getting ready by a certain time.

I can avoid driving into a packed parking lot.

I can push pause, go to the bathroom or refill that coffee (with better coffee), and push play.

I can stay away from people I don’t like.

 

If the internet can admirably replicate the experience of physically gathering together at a weekend church service while removing all the unwanted parts of it, why do we need a building and time to gather?

 

Again: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?

 

Now, I know, we are going to hear a lot in the next few weeks about how the Church isn’t a building, it’s the people.

 

I’ve heard it a lot already.

 

And that’s not incorrect. The Greek we translate to mean “Church” is more correctly understood as “assembly” or “congregation”. The Church is not a supra-individual entity, it’s the individuals that create the collective. Now, I don’t disagree with this, but I’m still not sure why the Church consisting of people is important in a conversation surrounding why you go to church.

 

Further, going to church – according to the many churches that are scrambling to produce video content for you to still “attend church” during this time of isolation – seems to be an essential part of being the Church.

 

But why?

 

I’m not sure I have a great answer to that question.

 

And I don’t know that many of us do.

 

I mean, if someone asked you, “Why do you attend church?” what would you tell them?

 

Now, before you answer that, ask yourself what physically going to church allows you to do that going to church virtually doesn’t?

 

I guess, put another way, that question could read more like this: when you can go back to church, in person, why would you?

 

To be honest, I don’t think many of us in the modern, Western, evangelical tradition has much to say on the topic. I scoured the internet (because let’s face it, that’s all we have to do these days, isn’t it?), and all that came back were the same tired responses:

  1.  God says we ought to. (Where? Hebrews 10:25 was written by a human author, not verbatim from the mouth of God. And even if it were God’s direct words, does he mean that we ought to attend church as we experience it today? Why is church online an okay substitute now? Is it simply because of the circumstance?)
  2. We don’t go to church, we are the church. (How? What kind of wordplay is this? It doesn’t even answer the question of why we attend Church. All it says is that we exist as people who profess belief in Christ. “Are” isn’t a very powerful or descriptive verb.)
  3. For people that aren’t there yet. (So, let me get this straight: we attend church so that other people can come and attend a non-sensical weekend get-together? It’s not about us being there aside from our presence benefitting someone else? That may be a benevolent thought, but it’s most definitely inane reasoning.)
  4. To teach your kids to love the Church. (Why? If you don’t really like it, and it doesn’t make sense, why would you teach them to endure it? So they suffer as you have or because you think it’s good for them?)
  5. To encourage your pastor. (Is your pastor’s ego and sense of self-worth so fragile that they need you to show up?)
  6. Worshipping God together is powerful. (Sure; if the words we sang weren’t so vapid, repetitive and ego-centric. Or, maybe if we could remember that it’s not simply a time to be performed at by a band from the stage, or that it’s not a moment for you to “push away the distractions” of other people and forget they are there when you get lost in the emotional moment of a musical key change. Sure…then worshipping together might be powerful.)
  7. To serve others. (And that can’t be done anywhere else?)
  8. It will help you to be a happy person. (No. Just no. Attending church does not guarantee happiness.)
  9. It will give you something interesting to talk about on Monday at work. (Because nothing else interesting happens in our lives on the weekend. Well, except the NFL…oh, wait, nothing about the NFL or football is interesting. Maybe they’re on to something with this one. Hmm.)
  10. It’s where your real friends are. (As opposed to all of those fake friends who don’t go to church, or the same church as you.)

Listen, I’m not attempting to be snarky (although I do a good enough job of it in the above parentheses), or suggest that going to Church is ridiculous.

 

Far from it.

 

I’m simply attempting to raise a question that is being brought to my attention during the extraordinary times we find ourselves in.

 

We can’t gather physically. 

But everything we would gather for is being provided remotely. 

Why attend church anymore? 

 

And the questions have led me to look for answers.

And the answers I have found are less than meaningful.

 

So, I’ll ask it once more: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?

 

Perhaps it doesn’t.

 

If it doesn’t, that should greatly shock us. 

After all, we assume that it matters.

Let that shock wash over you.

Hopefully, that shock jolts us enough to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing every weekend.

 

Every seven days, millions (maybe even billions) of dollars are spent to make a weekend event happen. Why?

 

Perhaps that thought will shock us enough to evolve into something that, if it didn’t happen every seven days, the world would sit up and take notice.

 

What a world that would be.

 

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped

WHO IS ANTHONY VANDERLAAN?

I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait

Hello, my friends, and welcome to the second installment in a series of articles that I am calling Metamorphosis. I’ve titled this second part, Heaven Can Wait.

Because, you know, I assume most of you reading this are HUGE fans of Meat Loaf. (And if you didn’t get the reference, stop reading this article right now and go listen to this. If you’re a fan of 70’s ballads, you won’t regret spending 4 minutes and 40 seconds of your life on it. Just make sure you come back afterward.)

But seriously, I think the reality for many of us is that heaven is the point. Therefore, heaven simply can’t wait. 

But heaven can wait. I don’t think it’s the point at all.

There, I said it. Heaven isn’t the point. At least, not in the way you’re thinking.

Now, with that, I’ve attempted to destabilize one of the most tightly held beliefs of many a Western Christian. Why? Because it’s in the deconstruction of long-held assumptions that reconstruction and transformation can occur. It’s a case I’ve attempted to make in the first article of this series.

Before I push further into what I mean by “heaven isn’t the point,” let’s do a small recap.

A Recap.

I won’t belabour you with a lengthy summary of the first part of this series. After all, I wrote an entire article that goes into much greater detail. So, if you missed it, you can read through it here. In fact, if you haven’t read part one but want to read part two, don’t. This article won’t make much sense without it. I would highly recommend reading that article before pushing ahead into this one.

However, here is a quick summary:

Deep down, all of us – whether conscious or not – ask this question: what’s the point? In the Church, the question looks like, “What’s the point of discipleship?” In other spheres of life, it looks a lot like the following: “What’s the point of life?” or, “Why bother doing work?” or, “Does anything really matter?”

And here’s the rub: often, the answers we provide to that kind of question leave us wanting. More often than not, we preface the answers we arrive at with words like, “Is it just?” Deep down, that kind of answer betrays a dissatisfaction with the result. Why? Because it causes us to experience cognitive dissonance. It’s not so much that we think the answer is right, it’s that we think the answer should be right. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that, in the end, we desire, nay, require it to be sufficient and satisfying.

“Why bother doing work?”

Is it just to make money?

When we answer a question with a question, something’s amiss. If that question answer begins with, “Is it just,” then it seems like we require that answer to be satisfactory and sufficient.

Why?

Because it’s easier to maintain unchallenged and comfortable assumptions than it is to destabilize that which we thought was true and foundational.

And fair enough. I’d rather be comfortable with the status quo, too. But is that kind of life worth having?

I don’t think so.

It’s why theologian N.T. Wright has become one of the greatest influences in my ongoing metamorphosis. He’s willing to destabilize long-held assumptions for the purpose of reconstructing our view of God, the Bible, and the point of everything. He does this by gently deconstructing that which we have assumed to be true, and then going so far as to help us reconstruct that old assumption with something far more profound and helpful. And it is, precisely, in that reconstruction phase that we can journey down the path of creating a life in which we are fully alive. In his life, he has taken many pervasive beliefs of the Western Church and both deconstructed and reconstructed them. One of those pervasive beliefs is about the next life. You know, the whole “heaven is the point” thing. I know our “final destination” may seem like a foregone conclusion; however, I think it’s time that many of us began to engage our assumptions about the next life. I think we must because so many of us are so hopeful for what is to come that we are blind to what is at this very moment. I think we need to engage, challenge, and deconstruct our long-held assumptions about the next life so that we may experience abundant eternal life now.

Back to “Heaven Isn’t the Point” and A Word From N.T. Wright.

According to N.T. Wright, the notion of going to heaven when we die has become the focal point of Western Christianity. It is a fundamental element of belief. Upon that doctrine, he would suggest that many good and kind, charitable and God-fearing people are hanging the entirety of their faith. If heaven isn’t the final destination, then none of this can be true. (Interestingly, we often equate belief/faith to intellectual assent. However, what we believe is best witnessed by observing how we behave. But more on that later.) In a recent piece for TIME he writes:

“One of the central stories of the Bible, many people believe, is that there is a heaven and an earth and that human souls have been exiled from heaven and are serving out time here on earth until they can return. Indeed, for most modern Christians, the idea of “going to heaven when you die” is not simply one belief among others, but the one that seems to give a point to it all.”

He goes on to say:

“But the people who believed in that kind of “heaven” when the New Testament was written were not the early Christians. They were the “Middle Platonists” – people like Plutarch.”

So there you have it. It’s possible to conclude that the modern Church really isn’t exceedingly Christian in thought. We’re Middle Platonists.

And here I was thinking I was a follower of Christ. A person of The Way. An a-theist, as the first-century Romans would have said. Turns out, for the first twenty-or-so years of my life, I was a closet Middle Platonist. So was everyone I knew. 

Yet none of us knew it.

But. Wait. What? What’s a Middle Platonist?

There Once Was A Philosopher Named Plato.

Middle Platonism isn’t that difficult of a concept. It sounds difficult, but let’s break it down. Middle simply refers to an era in the development of the philosophic ideas of a man named Plato. (More on him in a moment.) Most scholars suggest it began around the year 90 BC until the development of Neoplatonism in the 3rd Century AD. Easy enough, right? After all, that is half of the terminology.

Well, there is a little more. And that brings us to Plato.

Plato and His Ideas.

One could make the case that all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. He’s that important. That is, his seminal ideas are what have driven the field of philosophy for over 2000 years. Now, if that’s the case, we better have some knowledge of his ideas. They obviously matter.

As it turns out, ideas and matter are what Plato is all about.

If you were to scour the works of Plato in order to develop a more systematic way of understanding his thought, you would arrive at what is now known as Platonic dualism. In a nutshell, Plato believed that life could be divided into two categories: the Cosmos (i.e., matter) & Ideas. Let’s briefly consider these two categories.

First, let’s examine the Cosmos. We’ll start there because it’s the easiest of his categories to understand as it deals with that which we experience around us. Many of us would agree on this point: the universe is a material universe. It can be studied and experienced. It can be categorized, codified, and quantified. We know the density of trees, the mass of a human, and the flavour of filet mignon. Now, according to Plato, these categories, codes, and quantities are ever-changing. That is, they are in flux. For example, one tree is like another tree, but not identical. There are oak and walnut, maple and pine, hickory and beech trees. They are all trees, but they are all different. Furthermore, not one maple tree is identical to another. The same can be said for people, dogs, cats (if you like that sort of thing), planes, trains, and automobiles. They are categorically the same, but they are different. They are orderly and disorderly. The important thing to understand about Plato’s Cosmos, though, is that all of these things are impermanent and, thus, imperfect. Hold on to that nugget for just a moment more. So, summarily, Plato’s conceptualization of the Cosmos deals with matter. It deals with that which is material. The things we can touch, taste, and see. And all of those things are impermanent and imperfect. But that’s not all there is to his philosophy. There’s one more category we need to talk about.

Second, it’s necessary to examine the Ideas. It’s important to understand one thing from the beginning: Plato didn’t mean ideas as in our inner thoughts. So, let’s not equate those two. In Plato’s philosophy, the Ideas are that which is eternal, changeless, and purely intelligible. As such, Plato’s conclusion was that Ideas are orderly, permanent, and perfect. Remember what I said about the Cosmos? The Cosmos, according to Plato, is imperfect. Conversely, Platonic philosophy suggests the Ideas to be perfect.

Okay, that’s great. But what does that mean for our lived experience?

Simply this: what we experience in the Cosmos is a pale and imperfect reflection of what exists in the Ideas. For every maple tree you encounter in the Cosmos, there exists a perfect and permanent maple tree in the Ideas. The same is true for buildings. The same can be said of birds. Have you seen a triangle lately? If you have, it is simply the poor representation of the perfect triangle in the Ideas. Now, triangles play by certain rules. They’re three-sided polygons, and the sum of their angles is 180 degrees. Those are the rules that govern triangles. In the Ideas, there is a perfect triangle. In the Cosmos, there are pale and imperfect representations of that perfect triangle. In the Ideas, there is full perfection of the poor representations we witness around us. And this is true for everything.

And there you have it, Plato’s thought and philosophy summed up in a few paragraphs.

Great. This matters precisely why?

Why Plato’s Ideas Matter.

It may seem moderately esoteric to dabble in Platonic thought. After all, he’s long dead. True. But his thought lives on, and it permeates much of our Christian thought. (And believe me, what I just offered is a cursory and simple explanation of Platonic philosophy. It’s way more detailed, nuanced, and staggeringly beautiful than one small section of one small article can manage.)

Here’s what I mean:

Plato presents the Ideas in stark contrast to the Cosmos. The Ideas contain all that is good. When we comprehend the phenomenon that is the Ideas, we come to idealize them over the Cosmos. Why? Because the Cosmos incarnates all that is good; however, it does this in an imperfect and impermanent way. The natural endpoint of this kind of thinking is that there exists that which is good and that which is bad. The good is that which we must strive for. The bad is that which we must forsake. The Ideas are good because they are perfect. The Cosmos is bad because it is imperfect. The Ideas, on many levels, are constituted by immaterial spirit. The Cosmos, on the other hand, is made up of material matter. In short, the spirit is good and matter is bad.

And how does that play out in Christian thought and theology?

At the level of the individual, a Christian worldview creates a Platonic dualism in our being. It happens at the level of the soul and the body. Our soul is spiritual, immaterial, permanent, and therefore good; if not, ultimately, perfect. We must care for the soul. In contrast, our body is material, impermanent, and imperfect; it is a pale representation of the ideal body. Therefore, we must escape it. 

On a grander and more universal scale, heaven is immaterial, permanent, and perfect. As such, we must strive to obtain the heavens. The earth, though? Comparatively, the earth is bound up in the impermanence and imperfection of matter. It’s a pale representation of the ideal realm of heaven. Accordingly, we must escape this earth.

How do we escape the material world?

We escape the material world by waiting for the death to snatch our souls from the clutches of our inhumane bodies. We wait for the shackles of this earth to be broken by a spiritual force that enables us to ascend to the throne room. It would follow, then, that death is God’s chosen mechanism to do this. It is our destiny to inherit heaven upon our death. In fact, we have a one-way ticket to the divine realm once He sacrificed his mortal body.

See how easy it is to trace Platonic thought all the way to “one day we will die and go to heaven”?

My guess is that none of us have ever really thought about it ourselves, though. It’s also possible that no one ever explicitly stated that line of reasoning to you, either. No one ever told me that when I was growing up. I totally understand how it happens.

And yet there is nowhere that we can point to in all of scripture that unequivocally states that we will one day inherit and dwell in heaven. 

So how do we achieve that belief?

We achieve it by doing nothing. It’s true. The first way that we achieve that belief is by doing nothing other than blindly accepting what someone else tells us. It’s made all the easier when we are too lazy to fact check. Personally, I’m not proud of this. I’ve done this far more often than I care to admit. But I also know that I can do something to change that. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s another reason behind our tight grip on the belief that we will one day go to heaven when we die.

The second way we achieve that belief is because of a natural desire to be comforted. In the face of death and suffering, it seems a lot better to believe that heaven is waiting. It makes God seem loving, and it gives us hope for our loved ones and for ourselves. It’s much harder to think that heaven isn’t on the other side of the veil. But, honestly, it seems to me that our professed belief in an inevitable inheritance of heaven is symptomatic of our conformity to a weak ideology that is made more palatable because it asks nothing of us. And so we conform to it’s non-reality so that we may remain comfortable. Comfortable and stagnant. Succinctly, heaven is a placebo that alleviates present suffering. But, ultimately, the hope of heaven one day may just be the very thing that keeps us from experiencing heaven on earth now.

I know that’s strong language. I do. But if it’s about transformation then why do we assume it would be comfortable and easy? Transformation, but it’s very nature, requires honest and ruthless self-examination. It requires that we challenge that which we believe, and consider if those beliefs can withstand the weight of rigorous cross-examination. You can’t change what you don’t know. But it is often easier to not know. They say ignorance is bliss. But it’s also true that what you don’t know can also kill you. To me, that doesn’t sound blissful. Conformity requires nothing. Transformation asks for everything. Conformity is comfortable. Transformation is destabilizing. Heaven sounds far more comfortable than earth. But earth is all you have been given, so why is heaven the end goal?

And that is precisely a question we need to push further into. And to do that, I want to go back to a beginning of all things.

//Spoiler Alert: Heaven isn’t the end goal. At least, not as we may have assumed it to be.//

A Beginning.

I know the sentence about going “back to a beginning of all things” may have sounded strange to read. Believe me, it felt strange to write and speak. My editor didn’t like it either. However, it seems to be the most accurate way to describe the opening lines of the Bible.

If you were to look at the first Hebrew word of the Bible, you would see this: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית

I know, it’s all Greek to you, too.

The first Hebrew word of the scriptures is, in English phonetics, written as bere’shit. And no, the last four letters are pronounced differently than your thinking. Its accurate pronunciation is something akin to bear-a-sheet. Say it with me: bear-a-sheet. Excellent! In the English translations we read today, that word is translated to In the beginning. It’s the most epic opening for a story, isn’t it? But, I want to let you in on a little secret: it doesn’t literally mean that. 

*blink* *blink*

What?

*blink* *blink*

You mean the translation I’ve known for my whole life is wrong?

Well, sort of.

There aren’t always direct equivalents in language. After all, words from one language aren’t invariably present in another language. As such, when we translate something from one language to another, we must always invoke some sort of interpretation. (Language is messier than we give it credit.) And that means two important things. First, translators are always attempting to interpret original meaning. We can’t always arrive at an unequivocal understanding of what an author meant to write when they penned a specific text, and so we must attempt to infer the original meaning. Second, it also means that we have to smooth out the translation from one language to another. That is, we have to make it readable to the modern tongue. In the case of the Old Testament, we have to smooth Hebrew into English.

What that said, the most literal translation you could make of the Hebrew word בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית (i.e., bere’shit) is In beginning.

Did you notice the omission in that second translation? Yeah, it’s missing the definite article “the”. 

In the beginning.

What you’re most familiar with.

In beginning.

A more literal interpretation.

“The” is not present. It’s almost as if the original authors want us to understand that we are simply dropping in at some point in time that may or may not be the absolute beginning of everything. In a strange way, it points to the eternal nature of all things while also reminding us that we are late-comers to this created order. 

If I were to paraphrase (and impose my own thoughts on the initial writers: see, interpretation once again), it would look something like this:

“There was lots going on before we got here. This isn’t the beginning. After all, eternity is a time that knows no bounds. It’s infinite. We cannot really understand what it means that there was a starting point in eternity. And, hey, we don’t really know what it was like before us. After all, there were no humans to tell us what it was like. But let’s pick up in the ongoing, unfolding of the universe. Let’s talk about beginning.”

In my estimation, there is a great mystery that we miss if we don’t acknowledge the humble first word of the biblical narrative. It invites us to marvel at the glorious expansiveness of all things. It causes us to question and consider the mystery that is God. Where did he come from? How was he here? At what point in time (?) was it deemed a good idea to create? Given that I don’t know everything about, well, everything, it seems that questions are a good idea. After all, we are talking about all things; and that’s a lot of things to discuss.

So, there’s a small case-study of translation, interpretation, and Hebrew. But why does that matter?

Because what happens next in the logic of the Genesis narrative is the unfolding of that beginning.

Gardens. People. Names.

In beginning, God creates.

In Genesis 1, we are regaled with tales of seven creative movements. Six days are spent doing things. One day is used to rest in the glory of what was done before. 

(Notice the narrative isn’t complete until that seventh day. In fact, you might say that the seventh day was the definitive moment of Creation. The culmination of all activity was rest. Rest, not activity completes things. But that’s for another time.)

There’s something that we often miss that I would like to draw your attention to. We are told that God created the cosmos, and he created people. (I’m summarizing things, obviously. But you can check out the texts I’m referring to here.) However, for years I made a very easy (i.e., lazy) assumption because I didn’t stop to think. I assumed that the whole of Creation was the Garden and that humankind was but the last addition to it. But that’s not what the story seems to tell us. Take a closer look at the narrative of Genesis 2:4-9 for a moment.

“This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” [emphasis mine]

Notice that last verse; verse eight. 

Don’t let it out of your sight. 

God created a special place within the totality of Creation that we know as the Garden. It was in an Eastern place called Eden. When I carefully read that verse, I cannot help but awaken to the idea that the Garden was not all of Creation. That bears repeating, I think. When I carefully read that verse, I cannot help but awaken to the idea that the Garden was not all of Creation. Conversely, we can say that all of Creation was not the Garden, too. All of Creation was still good. But it wasn’t the Garden. That’s an interesting thought. And, according to the logic of the Creation narrative, humanity was created from the ground outside of the Garden, and then placed in the Garden.

Is your mind blown yet?

When I first encountered this, mine was. It still is, in fact.

It seems to me that our ancestors were set apart. Accordingly, we were, and are, set apart. By God. We were chosen to be placed somewhere special. That’s an interesting thought. It seems as though God is up to something. Why else create all this space and then demarcate a special boundary to put humankind in it? (Note: adam is the Hebrew word for man or mankind. Hence the name “Adam” within the narrative.) It seems that there was a purpose to placing us in the Garden. If that’s possible, then what kind of purpose could there be? Take a look at Genesis 2:19-20a:

“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” [emphasis mine]

Why Gardens, People, and Names Matter.

And that’s precisely why these critical verses matter. Because they give purpose and meaning to our existence.

In beginning, God created a place for us to be and put us there. He then gave us the pleasure and privilege of continuing to help with the unfolding of all things.

Naming animals may sound like a stupid task to us, but it is a tremendous honour. Most parents that I know have agonized over what to name their child. Some get it better than others. (I’m looking at you Swedish couple that proposed Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 as an adequate moniker for their son. By the way, they say it’s pronounced Albin.) But have you ever noticed that the name you give your child often shapes who they are and how they are? Names have meaning, and it’s interesting how people often embody the name they are given. I can only imagine that the same would ring true in the Genesis narrative.

Naming things is a noble task.

Until there’s a name, it’s as though the being is only a thing.

Names make things come into being.

Naming was a task that God bestowed upon us. It’s an invitation to participate in the ongoing creation and unfolding of the cosmos.

We were co-creators. Junior creators, if you like.

And that vocation never went away. We are still co-creators to this day.

But there’s one other reason that these verses matter.

One Other Reason that Gardens, People, and Names Matter.

They also tell us that matter matters. That is, in stark contrast to the Platonic dualism that is rampant in our philosophy and theology, the revelation of God (through the world, scriptures, and, especially, the incarnation) shows us that God values matter. The physical world matters to God. Why else would he create? Why else would he clothe himself in flesh? Did he create to simply destroy it and have us escape the evils of the material world?

Quite the contrary.

It seems that he values matter so much that he made everything out of it and invited us to enjoy it and participate in it with him.

It’s as if God is subtly saying: I don’t want to do all of this by myself, I want you to be invested in all of it; because matter matters.

But if that’s true, then what’s the deal with Revelation? Doesn’t it all get obliterated in the end anyway?

Let’s take a look at an ending.

An Ending.

It’s interesting, many of us have been taught that there will be an end to all things. That is, we’ve been led to believe that the scriptures teach that this world will come to an end, and we’ll be whisked away to heaven for all of eternity. It’s as though the material fades into nonexistence. At that point, the real substance of spirit can take over, and all will be well. The bad will give way to the good if you’re Plantonic enough. If you’re nihilistic enough, then the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, will burn to ash, and everything will evaporate into nothingness. If you’re pious enough, then you will have done well enough to earn your place amongst the chosen ones in the spiritual realm of heaven. If you’re shamed enough, then God will be merciful and, you almost dare not to hope, he will kindly keep you safe. If you’re indifferent enough, then you don’t care about any of it. But, if you’re human enough, you likely wonder what might happen, and if you should be scared enough to do something about it.

See, it’s important to think about an ending.

Revelation 21:1-5 talks about it this way:

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”” [emphasis mine]

We Missed The Plot.

I’m not sure how it has happened, but so many people that I know (including myself for many years) missed this part of the narrative of scripture. I don’t know, maybe it’s because you have to read through 20 chapters of hellfire and brimstone to get there, or maybe it’s all the strange creatures. Although let’s face it, some of them would be most welcome in the worlds of Westeros and Middle-Earth. Regardless, for whatever reason, many people miss an end of all things.

Or, dare I say, a continuation of all things?

I gave a little Hebrew lesson when I talked about a beginning. So, I figure I should give a Greek lesson here at an end.

New Heaven. New Earth. Down.

When you read Revelation 21:1, it says that John saw “a new heaven and a new earth.” But does it really mean that? I mean, we now know that every translation involves some kind of interpretation. So, what’s meant by those words exactly?

The Greek word we translate as “new” in English is καινός. (It’s pronounced ky-nos, by the way.) Interestingly, there can be two broad ways in which we can translate that word. It has two meanings if you will. It can be translated to mean: 1) new in form; or, 2) new in substance. Let’s break that down by thinking of cars. 

A car can look new in form when, well, it’s brand new. It comes out of the shipping container and everything looks great. It’s unused. It’s shiny. But you can also make old cars look new, too. Take your car in and get some bodywork done, and you might be amazed at the transformation. Throw on a new coat of paint, clean up the tires, wax and buff it, and it can look like new. A lot of used car salesmen know how to do this really, really well. A used car can look unused and unworn with a little tender loving care. It can look refreshed and restored. It looks new. The harder trick, though, is to make it new in substance

To be new in substance is a divine feat. It’s an imperfect analogy, but older cars were basically solid metal. They were like tanks on wheels. Today, there’s a lot more plastic and a lot less metal. It’s a new substance. Look at a car from the 50s and you wouldn’t think the things we’re driving today are still cars! Remember chrome bumpers? Yeah, neither does anyone who is under the age of 20. Remember when starter switches were built into the floor? Yeah, that’s from the 50s. Fast-forward to today, and we have plastic bumpers that crumple when the wind blows, and push-button starters built into the dashboard. Cars still require the same components to be a car. But, they are made of entirely new substances now. Show a person in the 50s a rendering of a car from the future and I’m sure they wouldn’t recognize it. It’s new and not just in form; they’re made of entirely new substances.

Now, when the writers of Revelation crafted these lines, I believe they were referring to both kinds of newness; the newness of form and newness of substance. But the question really becomes this: what’s going to be made new in both form and substance?

Everything will be καινός. Everything will be new.

Heaven & Earth.

As the narrative continues, we see that John saw a new heaven and a new earth.

Fascinating.

It sounds a lot like what we read about at a beginning of sorts. “In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

In end, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

There’s something different about these ones, though, isn’t there? They’re new. They appear recently made. They are fresh, unused and unworn. But it’s not just that, they’re also novel. The material in them is unheard of, unseen, and of an unprecedented substance. It’s not just a renewal that involved knocking the dings out of the body and slapping on a fresh coat of paint. It’s that, but it’s also of a never-before-seen substance. Forget chrome and try a polymer that is eco-friendly and that we had no idea existed.

One of the things I can safely infer from these verses in Revelation is quite simple: God isn’t in the business of destroying that which he made. He’s set on making it new. It will be just enough like what you have known that you will recognize it, but just enough new that you will have no idea what it is.

And there it is.

That’s where all things are headed.

That is, the whole project, from the beginning, has been headed somewhere. And that somewhere is right here in Revelation 21. It’s a refreshed dwelling place of the divine and a refreshed dwelling place of humankind (and all the animals we named, too). It’s found in the final lines of the scriptures.

But wait, there’s more.

There’s something much more subversive at play in these verses, though. After all, it’s not such a radical idea to hope for all things to be made new. I mean, if you have a bad knee, you want a new one. Wishing for new isn’t so radical. The truly radical piece of these verses has to do with directions.

And it’s all about one direction: down.

Down.

Look again at Revelation 21:2a. it says:

“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

There it is. Coming down.

That newness is coming to you. You’re not going to it.

In his book, Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says this:

“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”

That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.

It’s interesting because we often gloss over that line in the Lord’s Prayer. You know, the one that says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This isn’t a wishful thinking kind of prayer. It’s a radical and subversive petition for the culture and eternal life of the heavens to permeate, invigorate, and radically transform all things. All things here. All things now.

All too often, we profess a belief in, and a desire for, the Cosmic Scotty to beam us up. To be crass, for many a human, that’s the utility of believing in Jesus. His sole purpose is to make sure we go up to heaven. I hear it from the pulpit and platform so often. “One day, when we go to heaven…” Or this one at Good Friday and Easter: “Jesus died so you could go to heaven.” Or we hear it in the all too real suffering of losing loved ones: “They’re looking down on us from heaven, and one day we will go up there to meet them…” I understand the desire. I do. We pray and say these things to find a modicum of comfort in a world that can beat the life out of us.

And yet, these are inversions of a noble theology that circumvent our suffering to provide us with comfort by dangling the hope of hope. But placing hope in nothing more than hope often leads only to hopelessness. Hope in a future that you can never realize now will always give way to despair. It’s only human.

But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for heaven to invade earth. Another way of saying it is this: we beg the life of heaven come and invade earth now.

It’s not about snatching people away from earth to heaven. It’s about colonizing earth with the life of heaven.

It’s all about heaven coming down.

And when heaven comes down, it brings with it a city and a garden.

Cities & Gardens.

Now, I will confess, I am inferring (but not in an unfounded way) the presence of a garden in an end. The vision of John seems to quite clearly depict a city. And what a city at that! Gold and precious jewels, and walls that enclose an area of 1.96 million square miles. (Yeah, I did the math. But that square mileage makes the New Jerusalem the same size as Mexico, just for reference. This is no small place. Given that it’s not likely a literal reality they are speaking about in these verses, let’s just remember that it’s way bigger than Palestine, which meant something to early Jewish readers. This new city, this New Jerusalem, is huge! Way bigger than anything you can comprehend. That’s the key point here.) But those few verses in the last chapters of Revelation don’t only speak of a city. They also speak to a river flowing directly from the throne of God. And along the banks of that river is the tree of life. And that tree bore fruit and crops, and it’s leaves provided healing. Now, where else do you find crops and fruits growing? A garden.

In a beginning, there was a garden.

In an ending, there was a garden and a city.

Who builds gardens?

God.

Who builds cities?

Man.

The garden gives life.

The city gives a place to dwell.

The things of God and the things of man come, in an ending, together at last. In perfect unity.

Heaven?

Sort of.

Earth?

Definitely.

Hope?

Surprising hope.

Conform or Transform?

So, there it is.

As clear as I can make it, that is the stunning belief that Christians, for generations, have held onto. One day, heaven and earth will unite, and God will dwell with his people.

But, somewhere along the way, we got sidetracked with irrelevant details and ideas. Plato came along and offered immediate hope and eternal hopelessness. And through the course of history, that belief has permeated much of Christian thought and theology.

The real question, though, is do you desire to conform to Plato or be transformed by the (re)Creator of all things? Conformity requires no work at all. Transformation requires every bit of courage you can muster.

Because you are going to need it to live a life worth having, here in the middle of all things.

And that’s where we are headed in the next installment.

One Last Request.

Before I close out this article, I would love to ask three things of you:

First, if you want to keep up-to-date on this series, Metamorphosis, please join me for the experience. If you want to be the first to know when the next article drops, you can subscribe to my mailing list. Everyone there will be the first to receive word that the new installment is live. You can subscribe here.

Second, share this article with people who might be open and interested. Let them know it exists, and get them involved in the conversation. It’s easy to do. As you were scrolling, there was a little box that popped up and said, “Who needs this?” You can click the link right there and share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Third, you can comment on the articles. Scroll down a little further and leave a comment at the bottom of this page. I’d love to engage with your thoughts on beginnings and endings and create an even better space to engage in the transformative work of the Spirit.

And, on that note, I leave you with a little bit of Narnia. Grace and peace as the life of heaven invades you here on earth, right now.

Narnia.

“And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” (C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped

WHO IS ANTHONY VANDERLAAN?

I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis

Hello, my friends, and welcome to part one of a brand-new series of articles that I am calling Metamorphosis

 

Yes, you read that right, a series.  

 

It’s a bit strange for me to be writing a series. I’ve written articles that are interconnected and related topically, but this is my first foray into the whole series thing. I must confess: I’m quite excited. It’s a new venture, but one that I think is incredibly worthwhile. Not only for me but also for you, my readers.

 

See, I had this thing happen a few months ago that caused a shift inside of me. It wasn’t this one event, it was really the events of the last five years of my life that came to a head in this one moment. I know that may sound over the top, but you’ve had this before, I’m sure. You’ve been mired in the slog of work for years on end, and you’ve considered leaving the company you’re at. But the timing has never been right. Then one day, someone calls you up and says they have a job with your name on it and, boom, you take the plunge. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about moving across the country, starting a family, opening a new business, going back to school, or exploring a new hobby. The wheels have been turning for weeks, months, or even years, but then one little event brings it all together and causes a shift. Or, maybe it’s not so much about starting something as it is about finishing something. Maybe it has been about ending your studies, finishing a book you’ve been writing, ending a toxic relationship, no longer striving to fit in in a place you simply won’t, ceasing to seek the approval of your parents, or terminating cyclical thoughts of past mistakes. Regardless, you’ve wanted to stop that thing, and then something happens where you finally do.

 

I find it fascinating that we can have all of these things stirring within us for days, weeks, months, or even years. And we can, for any given period, not do anything about it. We don’t start the thing we want to start, and we don’t end the thing we want to end.

 

Until that one thing happens. For me, it was an encounter with someone at Starbucks.

 

 

Encounters at Starbucks.

There was this encounter I had at Starbucks, and I need to share it with you. Because it caused me to pause, to sit up and take notice, to think, to grow, to evolve. A lot can happen at Starbucks. 

 

I was sitting down to write when a friend of mine walked in and saw me there. He came over for a few minutes, and we chatted. I hadn’t seen him in several months, so it was nice to catch up. The catching up didn’t last long, though. After about two minutes, he unloaded a question most pastors ponder quite often: Anthony, what’s the point of discipleship?

 

Talk about being hit square between the eyes at 7:30 in the morning. 

 

That’s basically where the conversation landed, though. We talked for a few moments more, and then he sat down to begin his work, and I resumed mine. But there was a fleeting moment of unadulterated and underwhelming brilliance within that conversation. He looked at me and answered his question like this: “Is it just to become a better human?”

 

You can feel the strain in those words, can’t you? “Is it just?” You can hear the teeth-clenching with disdain. You can feel the desperation in the words. When you hear the words, “is it just,” prefacing the conclusion that was reached, you know there is deep dissatisfaction with the results. The destination was less satisfying than you originally hoped.

 

“Is it just to become a better human?”

 

To be honest, I thought the answer he gave, albeit in the form of a question (which would betray an even deeper dissatisfaction with the answer than first surmised), was brilliant. It was brilliant but incomplete. And, in retrospect, that was why he was struggling with his conclusion. It was premature. It wasn’t fleshed out. It was a half-answer.

 

So, I thought I ought to explore that question more thoroughly. After all, it’s the question that so many people ask. Okay, so maybe it’s not in such a churchy way. Maybe you don’t ask “What’s the point of discipleship?” Fair enough. But, for many Christians, discipleship is equated with living. Therefore, you might ask, just as easily, “What’s the point of life? Why bother living and doing anything?” At the root of it all, you’re asking the same thing: what’s the point?

 

In other words, does it make any difference to change jobs? Have hopes and dreams? Be devastated by the loss of something or someone? Believe in anything?

 

And those are million-dollar questions, aren’t they? If you could answer those, your talents would be in high demand. 

 

So, I thought that I should very much like to answer that question.

 

And that’s what this entire series, Metamorphosis, is all about: attempting to answer the question “What’s the point?” And it would be way more fun if you were to be part of it. I’d love for you to not only track with me, but to engage with me, as we plumb the depths of that question.

 

But where do you start?

 

I started by using the Google. You know, as you do. You stop everything that you are working on and you get sucked into the vacuous rabbit hole of a Google search. And I came across the results of a year-long Bible passage popularity contest.

 

*Bear with me as I recite some decade-old statistics.*

Popularity Contest.

In 2010, Bible Gateway released the top 25 Bible passages for 2009. The results weren’t surprising. (In fact, with only minute differences, the results for the top Bible passages of the last decade are all very similar in their makeup.) The famous love passage of 1 Corinthians 13 was the number one passage of the year. Surprise, surprise. It’s all about love. (That was the most searched Bible term of 2018, according to Bible Gateway.) It was followed in popularity by Psalm 23. Are you surprised yet? Neither was I. Out of the remaining 23 passages, all but five were from the New Testament. Again, no surprise. The average person doesn’t care about the Old Testament. The same could be said for pastors too if you were to look at their past sermon series. The New Testament reigns supreme. After all, we’re people of the new covenant, so we can disregard the first 39 books of that old and soooo played covenant. Nineteen new deal passages, six from the old. It seems like a good ratio. I’m actually stunned it was this close.

 

*sigh*

 

But here’s where it becomes very interesting, and, dare I say it, surprising. Two of the top three passages were from the Old Testament…wait…what?!? Okay, let’s look at that a little closer. What passages were they? They were – drum roll please – Psalm 23 and Genesis 1.

 

Can I hang my head at this?

 

Listen, I’m not saying these are unimportant passages. Far from it. They are beautiful and theologically staggering. I have been deeply mesmerized by Genesis 1 for the last six months. You could study it for years and never run out of things to marvel at. It’s a bottomless well of beauty, myth, and love. And Psalm 23, well, need I say more. But if there are any Old Testament passages that the average person is familiar with, it would make sense that they were the very first chapter of the Bible and the most famous psalm of all. Just sayin’.

 

Okay, so what else was surprising? Nothing that I could see. Oh, except that the only other passage from the Old Testament that made it into the top 25, that wasn’t a Psalm, was Jeremiah 29:11. Surprise, surprise. (Actually, not at all. According to Bible Gateway and YouVersion, this has become the most popular verse in all of Scripture in both 2018 and 2019.) People love the idea of God declaring his knowledge of the plans he has for them. In fact, the trend seems to suggest that individuals increasingly love to latch on to the verses that are declarative in nature. You know, the ones that say God is for us and won’t abandon us. Those verses are cherry-picked through Google searches and keyword searches on Bible Gateway. Frankly, I’m shocked that passages like Exodus 4:24Judges 19:25-28, or this, the happiest of psalms, didn’t make it into the top 25. (That’s a conversation for another day.) But there you have it, verses that declare God’s love for people, with unabashed positivism, are the most popular.

 

Okay, so was there anything else about that list? Yeah, there was one more thing that I noticed. It was the twelfth entry on the list. It caught my eye, first and foremost, because it was a passage about a twelfth chapter and it was twelfth on the list. (Staggering the way my mind works, isn’t it? Look at that, twelve and twelve!) The twelfth entry was Romans 12. And this was utterly shocking expected.

 

Here’s why.

 

Transformation: Fodder When You’re Out of Ideas.

To quote every evangelical pastor ever, “It’s all about life transformation.”

 

If pastoral vernacular is any indicator, then it sure is.

 

But is it really?

 

Romans 12 is one of those passages that, often, gets used as a filler passage within a sermon because it mentions the word transformation. And that’s flashy. It’s affirmative. It indulges the ideology that we can “let go and let God.” It also goes well with modern worship music. It idolizes a positive outcome and makes a great soundbite. It also sounds better than saying “um.” When you’re not quite sure what to say, revert to Romans 12:1-2.

 

It’s why I’m not surprised at all that it’s on the list of top Bible passages for 2009. After all, you can hear the sentiment of the passage dripping through every weekend service, in every evangelical church, of the last 15 years.

 

“Jesus loves you! Just like Romans 12 says, let that truth renew your mind so that you can live transformed and free.”

 

Compare those words to, “Jesus loves you! Um.”

 

Yeah, the former sounds brighter and more hopeful than the latter.

 

If you haven’t heard that before, how about this iteration of the same idea:

 

“When you accept Christ as your saviour, you become a new creation. It says so in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The old has gone, the new has come. The old way you lived is gone. The sin that kept you in bondage has been taken away. It’s like Paul says to the Romans, “If you want to be renewed, if you want to be transformed, then you have to allow your mind to be renewed. Then you will be transformed. And that’s what it’s all about.”

 

Generic enough for you?

 

Okay, maybe it’s not in a sermon that you heard it referenced, but somewhere else in the service. After all, the sermon usually clocks in at about 50% of the time you’re gathered together. That still leaves roughly 30-45 more minutes to fill. Then, subtract about half of the remaining time for a mash-up of declarative, driving, repetitive, and angst-laden ballads to the deity we wish we could conjure more feelings for. Don’t get me wrong, I think that there is great beauty when we sing to the creator. However, I am skeptical of whether the worship we have created is actually worship, or if it is actually cloaking much deeper symptoms of our brokenness that we refuse to acknowledge.

 

But singing is not all there is to our weekend services. There’s more!

 

At this point, you have about 15 minutes to do some more talking about transformation. Usually, that happens in the announcement slot of a weekend gathering. You know, the time where the service comes to a grinding halt in order to push small groups and serving within a particular church ministry so that the pastor/host/emcee can hide the offering while you’re not focused on it?

 

Often those announcements go something like this:

 

“Here at [insert name of church], we believe in life transformation. We believe that God wants all of us to experience a radical transformation; to be made new. Around here, we believe that happens in the environments of weekend gatherings and small groups/circles/clans/squads/tribes/collections/compilations/bands/units/crews/troupes/assemblies of people. We believe that’s where God works. So, stop by our Next Steps Area so we can chat about your next step to experiencing life transformation in a group.”

 

And so, after the service, if you’re comfortable, you can step forward and uncover the predetermined, unique, cookie-cutter pathway for you to change your life.

 

Bam! Life changed forever. All because of your one decision that fateful weekend in September. (Or after Christmas, but no more than two weeks into the new year. Or, lest I forget, right after Good Friday and Easter.) Because let’s face it, that’s when church leaders think everyone comes back to the church ready to be changed; after summer vacation, on the high of Christmas, in resolution mode at the turn of the year, or when feeling shameful gratitude because of the sacrifice we remember on Good Friday and Easter.

 

Okay, so that was tongue-in-cheek, but if you stop and think about it, it’s not a foreign concept to many of us. Transformation is a word that is liberally tossed around. It’s the new “um” when your brain isn’t fast enough to tell your tongue what to do. It’s applied as a filler when we’re out of ideas for what to say. And we support our use and overuse of the word because of its presence in Romans 12 – one of the most popular passages of scripture in 2009. Yet we never move beyond the word itself into something deeper. It’s as though ‘transformation’ sits on the shelf waiting to be picked up. It remains ink within the pages. It’s an idea that is awaiting incarnation.

 

That’s why I’m so shocked it actually made the top 25: because even though it’s talked about ad nauseam, I don’t think it’s actually understood. The best manifestation of the transformational ideal the church seems to have is to attend church and join a small group. Thousands of years of history and that’s as far as we’ve come with Romans 12. If it is such a popular passage, such a prominent idea, and such a poignant summary of what it means to have faith, shouldn’t we attempt to understand and embody it in vastly different ways? Isn’t there more to transformation than simply sitting on our rear-ends?

 

A Beginning of Understanding.

Okay, so that was a rhetorical question. It was also leading. There was only one answer, but you knew that.

 

And that’s the point.

 

According to many-a-pastor, there’s only one way to talk about and experience transformation: come back next Sunday and/or (especially and) disrupt your week with a small group of your new “friends.” Fundamentally, there isn’t really an option here, either. It’s never “or.” It’s always “and.”

 

What it boils down to is consume our talking and talk with other people that we select for you.

 

But talk is cheap.

 

Talking often causes us to do nothing. In the long run, it keeps us from a true experience. That’s part of the problem of language. It helps you talk about things, but it doesn’t necessarily help you experience them. Have you ever tried to talk about a trip you took, only to have your words pale in comparison to the experience? Yeah, the trip now sounds like it was dull, but it was really a delight! You know that. But you’re not sure everyone else knows it. What about describing a brilliant scene from a movie? Words don’t seem to cut it, do they?

 

I can know what it looks like on top of Mount Everest. 

I don’t know what it’s like to stand on its summit.

 

And that’s what it’s like with the word transformation. It is very likely that the way in which transformation is talked about can keep us from actually experiencing it. I once heard a Canadian pastor, Bruxy Cavey, say something that applies in this context. (He may have been referencing someone else, but I could not ascertain that, so I’ll attribute the saying to him at this point.) He was talking about the all-too-often sad seminary experience of many pastors. He said this: quite often, seminary is the place where people go to talk about God as if he’s not there. Shots fired. I’m a seminary graduate, but I could recognize the words for what they were; reality. In other words, for all the “Jesus-y” talk that occurs in the hallowed halls of a seminary, the Jesus that’s talked about is not often encountered. Let that sink in for a moment. Seminary is holy ground? Maybe. But for what it’s worth, my experience was more like the one Bruxy Cavey mentioned. You can talk about God all you like, and never experience him.

 

You can know God, and simultaneously not know him.

 

That’s a paradox all of us willingly ignore.

It’s a paradox all of us happily live.

 

I can know about God.

I can also not know God.

 

You and I do this every day of our lives.

We are walking paradoxes.

 

To willfully blind ourselves to the antagonisms within our being is disingenuous at best, and sin at worst. To be certain that we know God only to never know him is to abide in the darkest depths. It’s made alive in the flowery prayers filled with certainty, yet a life devoid of charity. It’s incarnated every time you belt out a psalm/hymn/song at the top of your lungs, only to turn around and denigrate your neighbour. It’s espousing the grace of God, all while working harder to achieve eternity. To know about God but to never know him is a valley of the shadow of death kind of place that Psalm 23 refers to. A valley of the shadow of death that has an all too visible but never reachable exit. Believe me, you and I can talk about something like it’s not there, and we miss it altogether. You can miss Jesus by talking about him.

 

But it’s not only a seminary thing. It’s not just a Jesus thing, either. You experience this separation between yourself and the object of your speech all the time. That’s part of the problem of language. It helps you talk about things, but it doesn’t necessarily help you experience them. In fact, it might actually cause you to miss them altogether.

 

I know a lot of people who work as clinicians of some kind or another. A lot of them work with small children, too. In their practices, many of them have similar experiences when it comes to the interaction between them (the practitioner), the child, and the parent who brings the child. Invariably, many of them say the same thing: they have experienced a parent talking about their child like the child isn’t in the room. Except that the child is. Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest burdens that these clinicians face. Why? Because for all of the talk surrounding that child, they never actually get to hear directly from the child themself. It’s always mediated. They are talked about and, if they do any talking themselves, their words are translated on their behalf. It’s as if the parent knows what they mean better than they do. And fair enough, they might. But here’s a terrible reality, if that child isn’t involved in that discussion, the parent is only engaging themself in the process. It’s not about the child anymore. It’s all about the parent. It was never about the experience of the child.

 

It can be like that with God. Even though he is present, we can talk about him like he’s not. And if we treat him as absent, we may never get to know him. And if a void seemingly opens between us and the Divine, we often reconcile the void by acting as though it doesn’t exist. And if we act as though it doesn’t exist, then we continue to speak on his behalf. We supply the words as we see fit. And if we supply the words, it’s all too easy to re-create him in our image in lieu of bearing his. And we may never know the difference.

 

We may discuss God to death, but if it is merely our voice supplying the words, the valley of the shadow of death may be the only reality left to us.

 

The old will linger. The new will never evolve. How could it?

 

And that’s a harsh reality.

 

Another Harsh Reality.

But there’s more. The other harsh reality we must face is this: we often don’t think about God beyond our assumptions. That is, we often talk about him in such a trite and platitudinal manner that the discourse occurs on the level of unconsciousness. That is, we don’t think, we just speak. We reflexively use the words God, Jesus, and Spirit and assume they convey everything necessary to experience them. And if that’s true, nothing will ever change.

 

Carl Jung was a brilliant man. Polarizing, sure. But incandescent in his giftedness. This thought, from him, has been critical in my ongoing metamorphosis: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Without ever thinking about something, it will never change. If we truly want to experience God, we need to think about him. But we need to think and speak about him in a different manner. If we continually talk about God as if it isn’t in the room, we’ll always miss him. We need to speak with him. We need to engage with him. We need to learn to know him.

 

Now, I know the knee jerk reflex many of us might have: but, Anthony, our church is baptizing people left, right, and centre. Lots of people are coming to Christ. That’s a great thing! And you would be right to think that. But let us be careful about what we are inferring when we talk about baptism. Baptism does not equal salvation. (Whatever we mean by that word. Let’s face it, salvation is another one of those greasy words we think we comprehend and, as such, don’t talk about at all.) Baptism does not equal perfection. In truth, baptism doesn’t mean we have experienced a substantive metamorphosis, either.

 

Yeah, but they were baptized!

 

Sure. And the rates of anxiety within your church are likely no different than the general population. The rate of infidelity within your church is, possibly, hovering at the same mark as the rate outside of the church. How about the divorce rate? How about the rate of abuse? (Extend it beyond sexual abuse and consider emotional and psychological abuse.) How about the track record of environmental care? What about the levels of obesity? Debt levels? How about the kindness quotient? Is your church filled with sour grapes that have been dunked beneath the cleansing waters? How many people experience peace from the Prince of Peace? Many? Few? Or are they just as worried as they were the moment before they plunged under the baptismal waters? What about love? Are they more or less loving than before?

 

Transformation and baptism aren’t synonymous. One may be symbolic of the potential for the other, sure. But let us not equate potential symbolism for causality.

 

But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Our unconscious dictates that there exists a causal relationship between these things. Baptism equals full transformation. Baptism equals a full God experience. Why? Not because that’s what we were taught, but because it’s easier to assume. It lets us off the hook. We are absolved of looking in the mirror. Personally, I’ve been baptized and if I’m fully transformed then I don’t think my baptism was fully effective. I sin. When I do that, I highlight the work that has yet to be done. And sometimes I’m ashamed of that. Other times I don’t even think about it, because it makes life easier.

 

It seems to me that our unconscious assumptions about God and transformation need to be made conscious. Why? Because, if we don’t do that, we’ll continue toward the same destination and call it fate. We will baptize people, assume they’re good, and move on to the next person we need to “transform” by drowning them in divine waters. But nothing will ever change. Matters such as anxiety, unkindness, worry, and abuse will still reign supreme, all because of our unconscious bias towards doing nothing. In Jung’s words, fate. And fate is a dastardly concept, isn’t it? It’s one of the most degrading constructs you or I could believe in. I say this because fate removes all human agency. That is, if all is left to fate, we cannot change anything. Any action we take is doomed from the start. Transformation? Forget it. Stagnation will be the order of the day. But in that kind of world, there is no emergence from the valley of the shadow of death. It’s just death.

 

And if this is true, then nothing ever changes.

 

But if we are to believe what the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth, then death, the last great enemy, has been defeated and everything changes. If we are to truly believe the closing words of the Scriptures, that a new heaven and new earth are on the horizon, then everything changes. And if that’s true, then our idea of transformation needs to change. And that requires conscious effort, not unshakeable certainty founded upon nothing but our own certitude in unquestioned assumptions.

 

And that brings us back to Romans 12.

 

 

#12 of our Top 25.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

~ The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans

 

I’ve taken a long while to get there, but we need to come full circle. Funny how the most circuitous and inefficient route may be the exact path we need to effect the most good.

 

There is a contrast that Romans 12 expresses that demands deep discussion. It’s the contrast between two words: conformed and transformed. I cannot state this clearly enough: much of our lived – much of our incarnated – faith hinges upon these two words.

 

In fact, so much of it hinges on these two words that I will be devoting an upcoming article to a deep discussion of them. In fact, I’m going to devote every one of my next articles to expounding upon Romans 12, and as much of the scriptures as possible, to help us understand and encounter genuine transformation. I’ve entitled this series of articles Metamorphosis because, well, it’s the best translation of the Greek word we read as “transformation”. But not only that, I think we need to challenge the assumptions we have, and to do that best I think a change of vocabulary is extremely useful.

 

But here’s something I would love to ask of you. Actually, there are three somethings I would ask of you: 

 

First, join me for the experience. I’m will provide you with the best thoughts I have to offer. I will talk about metamorphosis and what that means, but I would love for you to also engage with it. If you want to be the first to know when the next article drops, you can subscribe to my mailing list. Everyone there will be the first to receive word that the new installment is live. You can subscribe to my mailing list right here.

 

Second, share this article with like-minded people. Let them know it exists, and get them involved in the conversation. It’s easy to do. As you were scrolling, there was a little box that popped up and said, “Who needs this?” You can click the link right there and share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social platform.

 

Third, you can comment on the articles. Scroll down a little further and leave a comment at the bottom of this page. I’d love to engage with your thoughts on transformation and create an even better experience. I’d much rather experience genuine transformation instead of leaving things to fate.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

We go back to a beginning. We look to an ending. And we fill in a few gaps in the middle.

 

And now, my friends, until the next entry in this series drops, grace and peace to you.

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped

WHO IS ANTHONY VANDERLAAN?

I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Certain Places

Certain Places

There are certain places that resonate with us. They feel transcendent. It’s as though all is right in the world. Perhaps you can think of that place immediately. Perhaps it’s close or, perhaps, it’s far away. But that certain place is where you feel at peace. It’s where you feel whole. It’s where you feel integrated. In essence, it’s where you experience transformation.

Where are your certain places?

Maybe it’s a vacation spot. Maybe it’s your home. Maybe it’s reading, watching Netflix, playing sports, eating good food, or absorbing a cup of coffee or tea.

There’s an interesting thing that happens, though. Have you ever tried to force the feelings of peace, wholeness, integration, and transformation in a place which, well, just doesn’t do it for you?

Have you ever felt so worn out that all you wanted to do was take a vacation? So you book one. You travel to your chosen spot so that you can renew and refresh but, by the end of it, you end up feeling worse than before you left.

Or maybe it’s as simple as needing five minutes to yourself. So you step out to grab a coffee. The excitement is brewing at the prospect of a cup of brown gold. And then! The first sip is so depressing. It’s burnt. Great. Now what?

Some places seem to be the place you were looking for. And yet, when we try to force it into being, it doesn’t often deliver.

We’re all looking for transformation. We’re all looking for certain places.
But how do you find them?

 

Transformation, Certain Places, and the Church.

If you’ve been around a church or leading in the Church for any length of time, you’ve likely heard a phrase sounding something like this:

“We believe life transformation happens in (insert setting here).”

Every church has it certain places.

Certain places are the environments that are designed to provide you with the feeling of peace, wholeness, and integration. In short, places of transformation.

Many in church leadership conceive of these certain places as a funnel. You move people from one certain place to the next in the hopes that they experience more transformation. I’ve written on that in a technical way here.

Regardless of what those locations are, every church has their certain places. Believe me.

Perhaps the place looks like a weekend gathering at a local church. It might be chairs, benches, the floor, an auditorium, a gymnasium, a home, or even a movie theatre. Life change happens at the weekend gathering when you sing some songs, pray a few prayers, and hear a preacher preach.

Maybe.
Maybe not.

Perhaps the place looks like a small group, bible study, or a house church. Life change happens when you gather in a group with a specific agenda to discuss what you heard at the weekend gathering or a passage from the ancient, sacred texts.

Maybe.
Maybe not.

Perhaps the word community is thrown around, too. That is, life change happens in a community. Believe it or not, I’ve heard that a lot of spiritual practices aren’t valid outside of a communal setting. I’ve even heard that reading the Bible is moot when you aren’t reading it in community. That was a new one. But, as you can see, life change only happens when you are around other people. That’s evident because someone declared it, right?

Maybe.
Maybe not.

In recent memory, I cannot recall a pastor saying that you could experience life transformation, firstly, by yourself and, secondly, there was never an indicator you could experience transformation outside of the specific settings they provide. Sure, they never said you couldn’t, but there exists a gigantic chasm between the active promotion of a handful of certain places and a refusal to mention any others.

It seems to me that the only way real transformation happens, according to many church leaders, is in the presence of at least one other person. However, a group of 10-12 would be ideal so that you approximate the size of Jesus’ posse. After all, there must be something inherently spiritual about that number. Oh, and don’t forget to show up every Sunday with a few dozen, hundred, or even thousand people to sing, hear a teaching, and drink bad or locally roasted coffee. The only thing that’s better than doing those two things is if you read your Bible to “invite Jesus into your day”.

Boom.
Life transformation.
Can’t you feel it?

 

It Smells Like Fish To Me.

Truthfully, I think the whole conversation is a bit of a red herring. That is, the idea of certain places that allow for transformation serves as a distraction from the actual topic of transformation. We get so hung up on where life transformation can happen that we don’t even care to know if it is happening.

One of the reasons for this, I believe, is because we in the Church don’t begin from a place of transformation.

Let me repeat that.

Those of us in the Church, especially those of us who lead in it, don’t often begin with a deep, transcendent belief that either the Christ or the Bible is about transformation.

We say it.
We’d never dispute it.
But we don’t believe it.
We don’t act it out for ourselves.

In truth, we possess a transactional view of God and life. And so we start our journey toward transformation with a transactional mindset. And we pass it along to those we lead.

And transaction has never led to transformation.

 

The Bible As Transaction.

Believe it or not, so many of us have grown up with a transactional lens through which we view the biblical text. Accordingly, we’ve become accustomed to a transactional God. We read transaction and we assign that to God. In fact, it is so prevalent that we often cannot see it.

Here’s how many people view the Bible.

The Bible, in a way, is a cosmic ledger that details the universal credits and debits. Everything aside from Christ is a debit against us and Creation; an account owed to God the Father.

Read the Old Testament and that’s all it is, right?.

The book of Judges? Yup. A huge debt owed to God. (A debt owed many times over judging by the number of repetitions.) 1 & 2 Kings? Some of those kings were seriously bad. Debt, debt, debt. Don’t even get me started on the debacle that was the Exodus; appreciation gave way to anger pretty fast.

What about the New Testament? Well, Paul does talk a lot about how we ought to be better, doesn’t he? Even further debt owed to God. Even the Gospels don’t seem that favourable toward us. After all, Jesus had some pretty strong words about some of the people he encountered and I can be a lot like them.

*blink**blink*

But then there’s that one line where Jesus hung on the cross and said something like, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” Yeah, I like that one. And when Jesus resurrects, that’s a good thing, too! Christ, then, becomes the universal credit that applies against our accounts owed.

If not for Christ, the ledger would be marked with a lot of red.

And while this is an appropriate way of interpreting Scripture, I don’t think that’s all there is.

Far too often we default to a place in which the pages of Scripture reflect a dead, transactional balance sheet that tracks a universal account between us and the Divine. Period. But the Bible is so much more than that.

I was listening to an interview with Father Richard Rohr, and I was blown away by one of the things he said. I can’t remember the quote verbatim, so I’ll paraphrase for you. He said something along these lines:

“So much of recent church history (i.e., post-Reformation/post-Enlightenment church thinking) has been focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as some sort of transaction. God, in the person of Jesus, made a deal with the devil at Calvary. He saved us, and now we can go to heaven because of that. As such, in light of that transaction, we are supposed to go and be transformed now, here on earth. That is, our consciousness, our mind, our actions, and our very being are to be radically changed in form, nature, and appearance because God paid the devil off.”

He goes on to conclude that it simply doesn’t work that way. Why? Because God isn’t transactional. He isn’t needy. He doesn’t need to barter.

He simply is.

And the I AM doesn’t host a universal version of Let’s Make a Deal, and that makes all the difference; a difference in who you are, how you live, and how you lead.

 

Let’s Make a Deal.

Every year, we contemplate and celebrate Easter. More specifically, we celebrate both Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Without a doubt, these two events are seen as the most transformative events on the Christian calendar.

And so they should be.

But why do we so often reduce the mystery of these events to some sort of exchange? Why is it relegated to some sort of transaction? It’s either a transaction between the cosmic Christ and the evil one or, wrap your head around this one, the cosmic Christ and God the Father.

Let’s flesh that out a bit.

 

Christ v. the evil one.

In the first kind of transaction, it’s easy to see the Scriptures as the story of hostage taking.

It’s as though the evil one has held the entirety of Creation hostage for almost its entire existence and, shortly after the dawn of time, he sent a ransom note. “I’ve tainted it all, and that includes the image you placed in it. I’ll give it all back if you give me your Son. Let’s make the switch at the Place of the Skull around the year 30 AD. What say you?”

Then what?

Did God the Father hold the ransom note just biding his time to respond? Why didn’t he fix it all right then? For some inexplicable reason, he decided to meet the ransom demands? “Okay, you win. I’ll give in because it works out better for me. Take my Son. You get him, and I get everyone else back.” Then in a grand turn of classical comedy, Jesus raises to life and God emerges the victor, swindling the devil of his prize. What looked bleak, miserable, and hopeless ended with life and paradise.

Now go and be transformed. Amiright?
How about being confused and wonder if you even understand who and what God is, and if he’ll change his mind later and tell the devil that he can have it all back.

To be honest, I’m missing the transformation that we are supposed to experience if this is what God’s all about.

But it gets worse.

You’re likely wondering how it could get any worse. After all, what’s worse than the evil one?

 

Christ v. God the Father.

Maybe it’s not a transaction with the evil one that we celebrate on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, but an even more powerful broker of death and life; God the Father.

That’s a scary thought. If we adopt a transactional understanding of the death and life of Christ, doesn’t it seem like we imply that Jesus is holding God the Father and his anger toward us and his Creation at bay?

It can often seem as if the Friday was like a tug-of-war in which the Father and Son dueled over our future. The winner gets to decide our fate. If Jesus pulls his Dad over the line, he chooses how to handle our fate. If the Father pulls his Son over the line, he may do as he pleases.

Imagine that. The existence of the universe hanging by a thread between two titans.

Sounds frightening, doesn’t it?
Well, Jesus sounds okay, but that Father guy sounds like a real piece of work.

Sounds fickle, too, if you ask me. “Well, okay, son, you bested me via a feat of strength, so I’ll change my mind about the Creation and people.” That’s a far cry from the never-changing, always loving God we hope is experienced in the transformational settings of a weekend gathering, a group, community, or even the quiet time where we “invite God into our day”.

Preach, teach, and celebrate transaction. Magically arrive at a life transformation.

Do you see that juxtaposition? Likely.
Do you feel the tension? Hopefully.
Do you feel transformed? I doubt it.

Why? Because there’s so much more to it.

 

There’s So Much More.

So if it’s not solely transaction that we celebrate on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, what is it?

We celebrate that God became flesh, died, and rose again not to change his mind about us, but to help us change our minds about him.

From beginning to ‘end’, God has not changed. What was very good is still worth restoring. What bore his image is worth redeeming. What was alive is brought to life once more.

See, the problem with a transactional model of God is this: there is no need for Christ to resurrect. He could stay dead because all we needed was a balanced ledger. In fact, there would be no real need for him to live on earth, either. He could have stayed far away.

Only he didn’t.

Christ came so that we might experience love in the flesh.
Christ died so that we might know the value he bestows upon us.
Christ rose again to show us that transformation awaits us.

It’s all about transformation.
It’s all because love drew near.

 

 

The Nearness of the Divine.

There’s a famous passage in the Bible. Maybe you’re familiar with it. It goes like this:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

It says it pretty plainly: you cannot be separated from God’s love. (Makes it pretty hard to see God as transactional, doesn’t it? If his love is always pouring forth, why do we induce anxiety by suggesting you could ever be separate from it?)

Perhaps it has not so much to do with a changing, transactional God, but a narrow view of the certain places where God transforms us.

And where might those places be?

Enter Genesis 28.

That’s right, that pesky Old Testament contains a key.

If you were to open the Bible to Genesis 28, you would read about a father and son; Isaac and Jacob. What you need to know is this: Isaac was old and his vision was poor. He also loved his oldest son, Esau. Jacob was the devious youngest child. He was also a momma’s boy.

Before we really dig in, though, I need to mention what happens prior to the events of Genesis 28. If you think you’ve experienced a big falling out over an inheritance, read Genesis 27; you’ll see it’s not just your family.

In the 27th chapter of Genesis, we read about this family of four that can’t seem to get their act together. In fact, the family is divided. On the one side, you have the dad and the oldest son, Esau. On the other side, you have mom and the youngest son, Jacob. The parents have played favourites. And mom wants to see the baby of the family get everything. Dad assumes life will continue as it always has, and the oldest son will inherit everything. Enter mom. With mom’s help, Jacob conspires to make off with his father’s entire inheritance. And so they trick poor old dad. That’s right, Jacob tricks his father, into taking all of the inheritance. How do you think dad and Esau felt about it?

Not good.
The you-know-what hit the fan.

So, Jacob did what anyone else who just robbed your family would do: he got out of town.

And that’s where our story picks up.

We’re told that Jacob is traveling along the road (read: making his getaway) and, “When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.” (Genesis 28:11)

Pretty innocuous, right?

Pretty weird if you ask me.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, they do. I’m talking Led Zeppelin weird. Jacob dreams about the stairway to heaven. And it’s not the kind of simple dream that you forget when you wake up. He gets the full experience. It’s as though he’s having a real, waking experience. It’s vivid. Angels are endlessly ascending and descending the stairway and God himself is there. What’s more, God speaks to Jacob. I told you it was Zeppelin weird. You can read the exact details in the Bible if you want. For now, that’s all you need to know. Jacob stopped for the night and had a dream where God showed up.

What do you think Jacob did? What would you do if God invaded your slumber?

Let’s skip ahead and see what actually happened.

Upon waking, Jacob can only think to say, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.”

Not quite the reaction I expected.
“Hmm. That was something else. God must be here.”

Maybe I’m not the spiritual titan that Jacob was, but I don’t think that would be my reaction.

But there’s something even more interesting about Jacob’s response. Notice what Jacob didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Surely the Lord was in this place.” Now making a point about what someone chooses not to say isn’t usually the best idea. So let’s look at what he chooses to actually say. His exact words were, “the Lord is in this place.”

It’s as though the presence of God, in that place, didn’t end with the dream. God was there. The Divine is there. The Creator will always be there. It’s a never-ending presence.

It’s as though Jacob compels us to reconcile something that has been true the whole time: God is near.

That begs another question, though. The question I can’t shake has to do with the place itself. I mean, what place is he in? I mean, where do earth meet heaven? Oh, that’s right, the writer told us where Jacob stopped. Did you see it? Go back and read verse 11.

Jacob stopped at, get this, a certain place.

Haha! Could you be any less specific about where the stairway to heaven was?!?! This is the nexus of earth and heaven. The Jews would call this place a temple. We would call it a church. Are you serious? All you give us is that it’s a certain place? That’s it?!!

Peel back the next layer and it begins to make way more sense.

See, we’re told later that Jacob re-names the place, Bethel. (We’ll get to the re-naming in a minute.) Translating that ancient Hebrew word Bethel, we come to find that Jacob called this place the House of God.

And where is the House of God?

Oh, that’s right, it’s at a certain place.

And that’s just the point isn’t it? God isn’t confined to any one place. He’s not subject to the contrived ‘environments’ we create for life and life transformation. The transforming, redeeming, and restoring Creator of all things is with you in the certain places. And you will never be the same after the encounter. Jacob wasn’t. The place wasn’t, either.

He won’t make a deal.
He will transform you.
How?
By giving you himself, exactly at the place you are in.

That’s exactly how the dream ends, too, by the way. God gave Jacob himself. He gave him abundance. He gave him blessing. He gave him assurance. At the end of the dream, God makes a promise to Jacob.

He did that for a devious, lying, cheating, momma’s boy.
And he does that for you, too.

It could be on a mountaintop, in a movie theatre, or in a Starbucks queue. It might be where you are mowing the lawn, making dinner, or paying the bills. Maybe that certain place is when the car breaks down, the bank account moves from black to red, or in the hospital room. It just might be in the loss of employment, the gainful employment, or the in-between. Get this, it could even be at a Sunday morning gathering, in a small group, or while you read the Bible to ‘invite God into your day’.

It’s a certain place.
It’s where earth meets heaven.
It’s every place.
It’s right where you are.
It’s Beth-el.

God is always near.

It’s not about a specific place, it’s about a certain place.

That certain place is exactly where you are.
Bring yourself, because that’s all you have.
It’s all Jacob had. He didn’t have anyone with him. He didn’t have his family. He didn’t have his small group. Shoot, he didn’t even have his inheritance right then. So he brought all that he had: himself.

And God met him in that certain place. That every place. Right where he always is.

 

A New Name. A New You.

Now, I promised to get back to something a few paragraphs ago. It had to do with receiving a new name.

We’re told at the beginning of the story that Jacob stopped at a certain place. At the end of the story, we’re told that Bethel had a prior name. It was called Luz.

Hebrew legend has it that Luz was a special place on earth. Luz was a place of refuge from the woes of the world. Luz, get this, kept the Angel of Death at bay. He couldn’t enter. He couldn’t go to work. He was made feeble by that place.

Luz kept you safe from death.
But it couldn’t really bring you life. It could only keep you from dying.

The lore of Luz also said something about your fate if you left the city. If you left the safety of the city, you would rapidly age and death would catch up with you. Luz was a special place. It kept you from dying. It didn’t help you live, though. It kept you stagnant. It didn’t transform you.

So what happened to Jacob when he left?

Jacob leaves, and his life continues. In fact, his life is going to be blessed. It would be blessed beyond measure. He stopped at a certain place where death couldn’t touch him. And instead of death following him upon his exit, he was sent with life; a life of blessing and the constant companionship of God.

And the city was given a new name.
Luz became Bethel.
It was a special place. It became a certain place.
And the certain places are where God is.

And where God is, there is life.

And where is God?

He is always near.

 

 

And That Leaves You Precisely Where?

It leaves you in search of the right place, doesn’t it?

Not really.

You don’t have to force a thing.
God is near.
God is life.
He is transformation.

If there is one thing that I have come to understand, it’s that God will meet you in certain places and those places are every place. The House of God is not relegated to a geographical coordinate. They are right where you are.

 

Peace, wholeness, and integration are waiting to be enjoyed. Will you force yourself to find the place or awaken to the nearness of God in the certain place?

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped

WHO IS ANTHONY VANDERLAAN?

I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Why Leadership Matters: Plato, Pie, and the Central Nervous System

Why Leadership Matters: Plato, Pie, and the Central Nervous System

“Christian makes a bad adjective.”

– Rob Bell

He may have been pushed to the fringes of many Christian circles, but he’s right.

Christian makes a bad adjective.

It’s why I hate the term Christian leadership.

(Is hate too strong a word?

Perhaps.

But I’ll run with it.)

I know you didn’t ask for an explanation, but I’ll give you one nevertheless. Really, the reason is simple.

I don’t think anyone’s really doing it.

That’s right, I don’t think the authors, speakers, and practitioners of a supposed Christian leadership are really doing it.

To borrow from Jerry Seinfeld, it’s like the dry-cleaners claim to be cleaning things dry. In his own words, “There must be some kind of liquid back there.”

If there’s a liquid, how can it be dry?

He doesn’t believe they’re really doing it.

Much like Seinfeld’s inability to believe in the claims of the dry cleaner, I don’t readily believe in the claims of possessing a Christian version of leadership. Embedded within that one overarching reason, are two sub-reasons…if that’s a term.

Let me explain.

Reason #1: Degradation & Dualism

In the first place, the term Christian leadership degrades both the Divine and leadership.

With a philosophical flourish, here’s why.

The word Christian is, ultimately, an adjective to describe someone’s personal faith position. That’s all the word denotes. It’s not a word that suggests anything else, really. Oh, sure, we may impart a special meaning to it; but, ultimately, it doesn’t do anything but suggest that the individual who is describing leadership theory and practice is a person of Christian faith.

That’s all that the term Christian Leadership denotes.

The same thing is true of Christian counsellors, Christian artists, Christian music, and Christian summer camps. It simply speaks to a personal faith position.

It’s interesting, though. I often find that once the faith position has been asserted, it’s proven to us by referencing various passages from Scripture. My personal favourite is when the line “Jesus was the greatest leader the world has ever seen,” or some variant of it gets dropped, and they reference some obscure interaction Jesus had with someone. It’s as if the case is closed.

Jesus is the best.

Didn’t you read it there, just like I did? This passage says it so clearly. Now go. Lead as Jesus did. The perfect example of everything.

But the Bible isn’t a leadership manual. That’s too reductionist. Jesus didn’t come to show us how to lead. He’s so much more than that: the Divine Creator-Messiah for starters.

This is why I find Christian Leadership to be a damaging leadership paradigm. It provides an air of leadership superiority based on a morality that is cherry-picked from biblical snippets. The result? Christians present that they possess a leadership monopoly because the Divine – you know, the greatest leader that ever lived – is one of us. So you better listen up.

What it amounts to is a theology of leadership that finds its foundation in asserting a personal faith position.

It’s a bit triumphalistic if you ask me.

I think it’s damaging to the body of Christ.

I think it’s damaging to leadership.

There’s something else at play, though; and it’s even more subtle than claiming a faith position and passing it as an entire theology of leadership.

It’s the resultant duality.

When someone lays claim to Christian leadership, the implicit suggestion is that leadership can be partitioned into the sacred and the secular. It’s as though we can slip in and out of the “God version” of leadership and into a version of leadership that is separate from God.

But it doesn’t work that way.

There truly is no division between the sacred and the secular.

There is one God and one Creation.

All of Creation has been born out of Divine speech.

It finds its genesis in the very breath of God.

Because of that reality, I don’t believe it can have a secular resonance.

If we claim that secular and sacred versions of leadership exist, we find ourselves arriving at a Platonic dualism that we, as Orthodox Christians, would wholly protest and readily live. (But that’s a paradox for another time.)

For those unfamiliar with Plato and his dualistic ideology, let me provide a brief summary.

At its most surface level, Plato proposed that there is a distinction between the spiritual and the material. They are wholly separate, wholly different, and wholly hierarchical. (That last one is critical.) You see, because of Plato’s teachings, there was a belief that emerged that said the spiritual is vastly superior to the material. Accordingly, it is our duty to escape the material bondage we find ourselves in and strive for the greater, better, and sacred spiritual. Conversely, we must forsake the material.

But you and I both know, deep down, that it can’t work that way. Why? Because it degrades the goodness of both the spiritual and the material. In fact, on the penultimate day of Creation, God declared all of it to be very good. Everything poured forth at the word of God. His breath infused life into all of it.

Because of that, we know the material matters. We know the material is very good. We also know that the material and the spiritual live, work, and play together.

In truth, there is no idea that is formed, no theory that is generated, no love that is given, no forgiveness that is extended, no matter that is determined, no word that is spoken, no shred of truth exposed, and no leadership paradigm set forth that does not find its source in the Divine.

You and I are living proof.

We are image-bearers of that Divine God.

You and I have the fingerprints, the marks, the imprint of God all about us.

We are material. We are spiritual.

And that cannot find its origins in the so-called secular.

Spiritual Pie.

Think about it this way. What if I asked you to represent yourself as a pie chart. You know, the kind of chart that is a circle that is formed by different sized wedges. Perhaps a little colour, a few percentages, maybe even a little separation between the pieces to emphasize different statistics.

Those pieces form a whole. They form a circle that is 100% filled.

What would your whole look like?

What would you say creates that pie chart that represents you?

Would it contain work related things? Education? Familial? Religion? Leadership? Creativity? Music? Athletics and sports? Travel? Character traits?

Think about it for a minute, and write those things down that form the whole of who you are.

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Now, let me ask you to do something. Take out one of those slices and continue to be you.

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Take the “spiritual” slice, whatever you called it, out of the pie.

Can any of those remaining pieces truly exist without the spiritual?

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Can you fathom being who you are without knowing that second language?

Can you continue to be you if you don’t love to create culinary delights?

Can you sustain your you-ness without engaging in your family?

Can you survive without your craft?

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Can you exist as only a portion of that pie?

Could you still be considered you if you lose any one of those slices?

Can you be you without the spirit?

Can you be you without the material?

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I don’t think you can.

In fact, think about how all those pieces of the pie are interrelated, too. Without one of them, the others cease to quite be themselves.

To paraphrase John Philip Newell, wholeness cannot be found in isolation. Wholeness is found when the whole is whole.

Every piece of your spiritual-material pie is necessary to make you exactly who you are.

Sure, you will change over time. That slow process of change that we call life will inevitably shift who you are as you experience new things, gain new ideas, and meet new people. But you can’t know, right now, who you will be at some undetermined time in the future. It doesn’t work that way.

All we have, right now, is right now.

And right now, you would cease to be you if you lost any of those slices.

It would fragment you.

You would lose your integrity.

Your wholeness.

Your essence.

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And that is why we cease to have a conversation about leadership when we are reductionistic enough to label it as Christian.

It loses its integrity. It loses its wholeness. It loses its essence.

By labelling it Christian, you suggest that God could be removed from the equation.

The result? Dualism.

It fragments.

It pulls apart.

It degrades.

When we come to understand that at the very word of God all things came into being, we cease the meaningless conversation surrounding what is deemed sacred and secular in origin.

As it pertains to leadership, when we refrain from labelling it as Christian, we cease to search for a leadership ethos that meets or surpasses the religious standard of the age, and we move into a place that allows us to explore, to engage, and to enjoy the very gift that God has given each of us.

Honestly, it’s the first reason that I dislike the idea of Christian leadership; it makes distinctions it has no business making, and it degrades the Divine and results in dualism.

But it’s not the only reason.

Reason #2: What, Precisely, is The Point?

Okay, so I took a while to explain my first reason for objection to the term Christian leadership. Perhaps, the second will be a little quicker.

My first reason for loathing the Christian adjective that can be slapped on the term leadership is more philosophical in nature. My second is entirely practical. I don’t think Christian leadership ever stops to honestly ask, or answer, a much-needed question: what’s the point?

Still sound a bit philosophical? Hear me out.

Have you ever attended a leadership conference and marvelled at the people who are presenting? One after the other, leadership gurus, pastors of mega-churches, titans of industry and innovation, authors, thinkers, successful millionaires, and perhaps a comedian or two, are paraded across a stage, and as they stand on the platform, they tell you what they think.

And that’s just it.

They tell you what they think.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think it can quite be called leadership theory. It’s more like Uncle Bob’s best practices. And believe me, some of their best practices are dynamite.

But do they ever tell you why those practices are best? Not why they worked so well, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about at their deepest, most basic, why they are best.

Have you ever sat in a back room, or an auditorium with several thousand seats, and heard anyone tell you what the precise point of leadership is?

I can’t recall hearing it either.

Oh, I can remember countless generic statements about influencing people, getting people to achieve collective goals, mobilizing efforts for the greater good, progress toward some nebulous and ethereal better state…but I’ve never heard a single speaker pinpoint why.

And that should throw up some red flags.

If we can’t pinpoint why leadership matters, does it matter that we talk about it so much?

I’m not sure it does.

Many of you are probably familiar with Simon Sinek’s famous Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Perhaps you are more familiar with his book, Start With Why.

It’s a basic message, but it’s also a powerful one.

Sometimes that which is basic is essential.

In sum, he says the following: Don’t start with best practices, start with the reason for doing what you’re doing. Don’t start with what or how. Start with why.

Simple enough?

Great.

So why do we insist upon sharing best practices instead of uncovering the why?

From my observations, the result is a lot of people running around, believing they are leading because of their behavioural patterns, that haven’t a clue as to why they are running around doing what they are doing.

A thousand best practices, for precisely…I’m not sure.

In other words, chaos.

To borrow the Hebrew found in Genesis 1, tohu vevohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ). (In Genesis 1, we are told that the state of things, before Creation, was chaos…it was formless and void. The Hebrew words for chaos are tohu vevohu.)

And while the beginning of all things was described as tohu vevohu, it quickly gave way to order. It gave way to very good. It gave way at the breath of God.

And I think our leadership should be doing precisely the same thing. It should bring order out of chaos. (More on that in a minute.)

It’s the second reason I don’t like the term Christan leadership. I don’t think it every seeks to understand what the point is. It simply assumes there is one because it is Christian. And without understanding what, precisely, the point is, we become busy-bodies that drag ourselves and others back to a state of tohu vevohu.

There’s no map. There’s no plan. There’s no guiding light.

Only chaos.

So is That All There Is Then?

No.

Unequivocally, no.

I simply think there’s a better way forward.

Toward A Theology of Leadership.

I know it’s a bit of a heady title, but I think it’s of the utmost importance. There needs to be a rigorous theology that informs our leadership.

If you’re concerned that it’s about to get heady, don’t worry, I’ll break it down.

Theology is derived from two Greek words: theos (θεός) and logos (λόγος). Quite literally, these words are translated as ‘God’ and ‘word.’ Therefore, we can conclude that theology is, quite simply, words about God.

So, basically, we’re going to talk about God and try to understand how it applies to leadership.

Easy as pie.

You do this all the time. You just don’t think about it.

So stop and think about it for a second.

Remember the conversation about the material and spiritual existing in harmony? If that’s true, then whenever you speak you are having a spiritual moment. You’re theologizing. When you engage the Creation you are experiencing the creativity of the Divine. It’s a lived and experienced theology. When you speak words of encouragement, you are joining the Divine within the space between you and another person. When you prepare a meal, you are experiencing and living theology.

Theology isn’t always heady. Theology is also practical. And that’s very good. Theology is an everyday experience for you…if you remember it to be so.

So let’s theologize a little bit more right here.

For Real Now…Toward a Theology of Leadership.

Most people look at leadership within the context of an organizational chart.

Anthony Vander Laan - Organizational Chart

What follows is this simple assumption: the best leaders are above everyone.

Why? Because of how we draw the organizational chart. The further up the ladder you go, the more people you leave behind, the more down on the ground they are, the more superior and above you are. Then, from that position of above-ness, you lead them.

When people have interpreted Scripture, they’ve drawn the very same conclusions. Leaders are above other people. They lead out of a position of above-ness.

Here are a few examples from the Scriptures.

“But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” (Exodus 18:21, NIV)

“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23, NIV)

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NIV)

Did you catch it?

I hope you did. I emphasized the words just for you.

It’s easy to read these passages, home in on those few keywords of the head, over, and under, and create a theology that teaches hierarchy and subordination.

But can that really work?

I mean, read the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 once more.

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. ” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NIV)

Did you catch the hierarchy?

God —> Jesus —> Man —> Woman

Did you catch the piece that didn’t make sense?

Aside from all of it, it makes total sense.

Let me explain.

There is no hierarchy amongst the Trinity.

Jesus cannot be subordinate to the Father. (I won’t dwell on the reasons here, but the Scriptures are insanely clear on this one. John 17:20-26 anyone?)  It just doesn’t work.

There is no hierarchy amongst humankind.

Women cannot be subordinate to man. (I won’t dwell on the reasons here, but the Scriptures are crystal clear on this one, too. Galatians 3:28?) It just doesn’t work.

Am I blowing your mind yet?

I know mine was totally blown the first time I recognized the oxymoronic tension that the Scriptures were presenting.

Whenever you see that in the Bible…you know, the thing that doesn’t make sense…you need to stop to ask a question of the text. Any question will do. It will help you start thinking rather than a simple, listless, passive reaction.

So let’s ask the question. If there’s no hierarchy, what is this passage, and the others I referenced, really trying to tell us?

I think they’re trying to tell us about the reality of a relationship.

There is a relationship within the Divine.

A relationship between the Father and Son.

There is a relationship within humanity.

A relationship between men and women.

There is a relationship between the Divine and the human.

A relationship made possible by Jesus. Jesus; a confluence of spirit and matter.

(It’s funny, as I type this, my editor doesn’t know what to do with the word “within.” It keeps coming back as an error. Sometimes language can’t adequately contain the deep mysteries.)

We use the word “head” and “over” in our Scripture translations to denote the quality of the relationship between things.

But it’s not a hierarchical quality.

Yes, it makes sense to translate the Greek and Hebrew words to “head” and “over” since that’s the direct translation. But the reality is, it doesn’t convey the message adequately.

Why?

Because those are loaded words in the English language.

Anytime you hear the words “the head over/of” and “over” you instantly think of hierarchy. It’s just how our language works.

But what if we were to do our best to reclaim those words? Humour me for a moment.

A Lesson in Anatomy: Why Head and Over Aren’t What They Seem.

When you think of the word “head”, what do you think of?

Likely the 10-pound ball on top of your neck!

And where is your head located?

Over/on top of your body. (Duh, Anthony…)

Put it together and what have you got?

The most superior part of your body that is over and above everything else. It’s the most important part of you. That’s why it’s so unsettling when someone “loses their head” for a moment. It’s the most important part of you. You can’t lose that. It only results in chaos. (Remember the tohu vevohu…good.)

But what if it wasn’t important because it was on top? What if superior was simply a term to denote an upward direction? (Hint: it is just that.) What if the reason the head was important was for an entirely different reason?

Let me explain.

You head contains a critical part of your being. Your brain. Your brain is roughly 3-pounds in weight, and it is part of a system known as the Central Nervous System. The most critical electrical signals that pass through your body are integrated within your Central Nervous System. Those electrical signals help you feel pain, temperature, friction, wind, touch, and countless other things. They help your muscles move and stabilize. They make you taste food. The list could go on, and on, and on. Suffice it to say, those electrical impulses are of the utmost importance.

Your brain is vital because it interprets, integrates, and acts upon all the information that it receives, through those signals, from various parts of the body.

It’s not more important than the neurons that receive and send the signals. It’s not more important than the feet you are walking on.

It’s not more important than the heart that pumps blood for every minute you’ve been alive.

It’s not more important than the tooth that grinds, crushes, and begins digesting your food.

It’s not more important than your lungs that inhale vitality and exhale waste.

It’s simply central to them all.

It’s over them because, well, your head happens to be on top.

It’s a better design that way.

This is what it means for the head to be over and superior. It’s over because of its location. It’s central because of its function.

It’s not a hierarchy. It’s a relationship. It’s an interconnectedness within and between things.

It’s like leadership.

Back to the Theology Bit.

See, when the Scriptures refer to something or someone being “the head of” or “over” it’s more about centrality rather than superiority.

It’s a question of relationship.

Interconnectedness.

There’s a passage in Ephesians that is often misrepresented. (Who am I kidding, there are lots of passages in Ephesians that are misrepresented.) I’m thinking of the one that says, “Wives, submit to your husbands…” (Ephesians 5:22a onward, NIV)

The problem?

They forget to mention Ephesians 5:21; the passage that says, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

It’s a question of relationship.

Interconnectedness.

It’s about submission and reverence.

See, in relationship, there is always a one-anothering.

There’s a give and take.

An ebb and flow.

The brain doesn’t think for itself. It receives electrical signals, impulses, that tell it what to think.

It receives.

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It then responds and tells the organs, muscles, and other tissues what to do in light of the original impulses.

It gives.

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A person doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They obtain signals and impulses from other people. They receive. They then respond to the people around them. They give.

The crucial piece to one-anothering is to do so in a fashion that embodies a reverence for Christ. A Philippians 2:3-4 kind of thing:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (NIV)

And you might be tempted to say, at this point, that this is a uniquely Christian idea. After all, it was the Christ that showed us the way.

Yes.

But it’s incomplete.

The Spirit of the Divine, the breath of God, brought order out of chaos. Christ is the full incarnation…the full materializing…the full embodiment of the Divine. He shows us the very essence of what it means to be human. He is the one that shows us how spirit and matter intersect and interact. He shows us how all spiritual and material beings are to live the way of submission to others.

It’s all about one-anothering.

It’s the order that was brought into being from the very beginning.

Christ shows us the one-anothering that has always been true.

Out of chaos, out of the breath of God, came one-anothering.

It was always there.

It was always spiritual.

It finds its reality in the material.

(After all, without embodying humility and submission, you can’t really see and experience it. The material does what the spiritual cannot, and vice versa. But for us, they always go together. There is no duality.)

It’s not a Christian idea. That makes for a bad adjective.

It’s the reality that always was, always is, and always will be.

It found its origins in the breath of God.

Back to the Beginning.

So what precisely is the point of leadership?

(I bet you forgot the question, it had been so long…)

The point, in short, is to one-another in a way that the Divine Spirit showed in fully material form. This is how very good is brought from chaos.

It is to…

– be selfless when it seems best to be selfish

– choose love when indifference seems best

– forgive when you’d rather begrudge

– be righteously angered when injustice is rampant

– give away power when you’d rather hold onto it

– see others as bearers of God’s image, just like you

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The beginning of leadership is the realization of that which has been true the whole time. You are human. You are spirit. You are matter. You bear the image of the Divine.

And so does everyone else.

And that means you one-another with them in a way that is fitting. In the way Christ would.

This is the purpose of leadership.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all of what you do as a leader, but it is the point.

Leadership begins the minute you understand this.

It’s not about hierarchy. It’s not about climbing an organizational chart of superiority. It’s not a linear thing.

It’s a relational thing.

It’s a one-anothering thing.

It’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s precisely why leadership matters. 

 

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped

WHO IS ANTHONY VANDERLAAN?

I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

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