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.
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.
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?
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”.
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.
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?”
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?
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.
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.
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?
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?