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Here I stand, bare feet on ancient stone. Looking down at the water…
How did I get here?
It’s 3am in Tsfat, Israel. Dark outside. Full moon over the 4,000 year-old graveyard behind me…
I was on the way home to California from a business trip in London.
As if by an unseen hand, I was led out of my well-worn hotel room and down the switchbacks to this holiest of places in this holiest of cities. Yitzak Luria‘s Mikveh.
I feel like Indiana Jones, except there is no khaki or wide-brimmed hat…I am as naked as the day I was born, no barrier, coram Deo. Even my watch and wedding ring have been taken off.
Just me. Just God. Just now.
My name, David, which never made much sense to me, seems oddly right for, perhaps, the first time ever. I have cultivated nicknames all my life. I think of the double delta of David’s monogram…
I think back over the last 48 hours here in Galilee.
Invited into the back rooms of synagogues…
Rabbis pointing through the texts of “secret books” in Hebrew and asking questions….
- How did you learn Hebrew?
- Your name is David, are you sure you aren’t Jewish? You look Russian…
- Where do you sense the presence of God here in Tsfat? Where is that feeling the strongest?
- What are you doing here?
I did not choose to stand here. I’m not even sure what a mikveh is…I was led here…
I need answers to three questions. Just two days ago, I wrote those questions on a tiny slip of paper, rolled it up, and placed it in the Western Wall of the temple mount in Jerusalem at sunrise. My forehead against the cool ancient stone, my palms up high, time collapsed…the better part of an hour evaporated like the morning fog…
It is dark outside. Not even the roosters have begun to crow…
I slide into the biting cold of the fresh spring water, holding the pole and stepping down the ancient steps. I breathe deeply and submerge….
The world disappears.
I pull my knees up against my chest, going fetal in this womb-tomb.
An avid surfer, I am used to being underwater and I gently roll backwards….
A glow emanates from nowhere and everywhere. I open my eyes underwater to confirm the experience and the light vanishes…
I come up for air twice and submerge again. The glow returns, and I feel enveloped in the Khesed-love of the Creator. Answers come to me faster than I can receive them.
I generate a will to receive.
Something shifts around me. The third time under turns into a dream. I feel as if I am breathing underwater. The glow gets warm.
All of my theological legalisms about baptism vanish and dissolve into an ocean of God’s presence.
As I climb out and dry off, my soul comes to total rest. I will walk for hours until the hilltop town awakens. Like an old snakeskin, I have shed something. A new season is starting…
Where is your “mikveh” where you take off everything in the presence of God?
When’s the last time you were there….?
Surviving the Deep Winter of the Church
….that I may know how to sustain with a word, him who is weary…
Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.
2 Timothy 4:2
The current economic recession is much more severe than we first thought, and the discouraging thing about it is that it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It won’t last forever, but it certainly is feeling lengthy…
Along with this financial downturn, we, as a church, seem to be approaching a spiritual “deep winter.” The church of Jesus Christ has gone through more ups and downs than any other institution in history. Saying “we have seen it all before” is never an overstatement with us. We’ll get through this season as we have prevailed, 100%, in the past. We outlast every other endeavor on earth, over time. Always have. Always will.
Please hear me, I am a militant optimist about the eventual outcome; God will get his way with all creation. But I am also good at reading the signs of the seasons (Remember Jesus talking about the fig tree in Matthew 24:32?).
Many of us came to faith in the heady days of the Jesus Movement, the explosion of Praise Music, the Charismatic Renewal, and the Church Growth Movement. We had spring, summer, and even, as these movements matured nicely, autumn.
You may disagree with me, but I sense the chill of a long winter setting in. It could last a half generation or longer.
Many Christians are just tired. One visitation pastor said to me, last week, over Thai food, “I am just so OVER church.” She echoed the feelings of many young adults raised in our congregations, who are staying away in droves.
Evangelism (actually leading non-believers through Christian conversion) seems like pushing water uphill. If you haven’t had to re-write your “napkin drawing bridge illustration” for salvation, you haven’t been paying attention. Most of our evangelistic tools from the 60’s (including the bridge illustration) are totally ineffective with many of today’s folks.
I can’t tell you the last time we had a wave of “church shoppers.” It seems like we have to create the demand for church-going itself. Many of our churches would not fill up next Sunday even if we offered $100 bills for all new visitors.
Everybody wants to be “spiritual,” but not necessarily committed to church. Record numbers of young adults, raised in the church, are no longer attending anywhere (some 70%).
Remember the times when thousands of young people, after coming to concerts at Calvary Chapel, were baptized in the ocean? Remember the first time you heard “Shout to the Lord?” Remember the first time you saw signs and wonders blowing through your congregation full-steam? Remember when starting contemporary worship and small groups actually led to church growth? We’re simply in a different season now.
Of course there are exceptions proving the rule. But they are getting fewer and farther between. 15 years ago, all of the largest ELCA churches were growing. Now, it’s one or two of them. And I’m talking about North America, not the thriving church in the Global South.
We also find ourselves, as a church, in the razor-blade meat grinder of the culture wars between political right and left, shredding what little stability we had as winter approached. Some of our congregations have literally been torn asunder by this “perfect November storm.”
This winter could last many years. There’s no way of knowing how long this “season” will last.
So what good news is there in all of this? Actually, there’s a lot for which we can be thankful:
1) Church “winter” is a time for study. Picture Abraham Lincoln reading his Bible in the log cabin, to candlelight, in the primeval winters of a younger America. I like to imagine my Scandinavian ancestors huddled around the stove reading the classics, with everything pitch black outside.
We’re too busy planting and harvesting during the sunny days to take study and growth seriously.
2) Winter is a time for relationships. In the Kingdom, we are brothers and sisters for eternity. As some church programs dry up for lack of interest, we can refocus on eating and praying with those people in our fellowships who mean the world to us. When the task-orientation of high summer sets in, it’s easy to see relationships as disposable. In the winter, we have to huddle together for warmth.
3) Winter is a time for prayer. In the frenetic days of summer, it’s easy to be too busy to pray. The darkest days of Advent are the time to light candles. Cultivation of a prayer life is hard when church life is at full throttle. Busy-busy pastors never have time to pray. The best time for that is “winter.”
4) Winter is a time to turn your heart toward home. It is not a time of travel. That comes later. Our church buildings were packed during the Jesus Movement. Now, during an “emptier season,” we can focus on a Josiah-like repair of our houses of worship. You church building has deferred maintenance that needs attention.
6) Winter is a time to safeguard our treasures. The “weather” can be hazardous outside. In past “winters” Christians in monasteries had to safeguard the treasures of the faith while pagan hordes ravaged the countryside. We also need to keep the fire burning in the fireplace. The flame of the Holy Spirit must not be allowed to go out, or we will freeze to death. We need to defend the Bride of Christ, the Church, and keep her warm, at all costs.
7) Winter is a time for dreaming about the coming spring. Planting season is around the corner. The trees will bud. The robins will return. God will do all kinds of new things among us. Many will come to faith. Our churches will fill again. But God will do that in his time. We don’t know the day or the hour, and can’t even predict a simple childbirth, let alone a spring thaw.
8) Winter is a time for faith. The church is sturdier than you think it is. It is not going under or out of business. Jesus guarantees us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.
God must love physical seasons–he invented them. And plainly, by history, he also loves spiritual seasons. As Ecclesiastes says, for everything there is a season.
Not every season is a season of revival.
Don’t beat yourself up as a leader because things are not as they were in the spiritual “summer.” You are not the master of the weather. Another summer will come.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a lengthy winter season is not coming to the church. But I think it is.
Winter is not a bad season. It’s just different. Is it time, in your church to embrace the good parts of winter?
And it never hurts to look forward to spring.
Which always comes.
While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
Some reflections on the National Day of Prayer
1) President Obama did not cancel it. In fact, here is his proclamation affirming it:
2) There has always been tension between church and state. For 2,000 years. Not just in America. To kings, the idea that there is another King has been problematic. Always has been, always will be.
3) There never has been a time when any national government and the true, faithful Christian Church were fully aligned.
4) Christian activity rises and falls in America. It goes in waves. Great Awakenings. The Pentecostal Azusa awakening in 1906. The big post WW2 churchgoing boom. The Jesus movement of the 60’s and 70’s. We are not in a post-Christian era. We are between booms.
5) Our Founding Fathers of the USA were neither the Focus on the Family Republicans the “right” makes them out to be, nor the “enlightenment Deists” that the “left” makes them out to be. Thomas Jefferson considered himself to be a devout follower of Jesus, but would hardly move to Colorado Springs to be with his peeps if he lived in our generation.
6) We cannot COERCE people to pray. Government should never coerce any faith practice. Jesus never coerced anyone. He let them walk away. But, on the other hand, the fact that some are OFFENDED by us “intentionally, publicly spiritual people,” does not obligate us to practice our faith only in private.
Any OFFENSE on the part of others, because of any of our faith practice, private or public, when we are not being coercive, is NOT another reason to push us out of the public practice of our faith (which is totally guaranteed in the Bill of Rights). That was a long, complicated sentence, but I don’t know how else to say it.
It seems like, lately, whenever what we do offends someone, some court makes us stop doing it. This is not constitutional. We are not properly distinguishing between coercion and offense. The former is wrong, the latter can’t be helped in a free society. The systematic elimination of all offense leads to a controlled, non-free society.
7) No government can cancel a national day of prayer. Any more than churches can legislate tax code.
8.) Over 90 percent of Americans pray regularly. Not just born-again Christians. Everyone prays before algebra exams. 🙂 Humans come hard-wired for prayer. Built in wi-fi.
9) As a free-market family-values conservative, I have the right to criticize our own movement. We have gotten way less attractive since Bush left office. We are more prone to conspiracy theories than ever before. A lot of us have just turned off our brains.
I just confronted a man who was looking for signatures using a poster of our president with a Hitler mustache in front of our post office. We are going to lose the next elections if we don’t work on our image. Middle America is not going to vote with what they see as crazy people.
Elections are won and lost with the moderates. We are alienating them. We come across as extremists (remember how may votes Goldwater got?) who love big guns, big business running our health care, closed borders and deportations, conspiracy theories, and people who hate gay people. Reagan (as opposed to Goldwater) got huge votes because of what he was FOR (free markets, strong America, positive-optimistic attitude).
10) We have another national day of prayer, instituted by Abraham Lincoln: Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a transitive verb which requires an object. And that would be God.
11) For the record, I believe:
-in having “in God we Trust” on our money
-in school prayer
-that the Bible should be taught in public schools, at least as literature and history
-that intelligent design should be taught in public schools along with spontaneous non-designed evolution.
-that marriage is between one man and one woman.
-that faith conversation and prayer belongs in the marketplace, the public square, the government, the media, and our schools. It is a part of who we are and free societies are free to be who they are.
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I have always been fascinated by Cranmer’s poetic rendering of Matthew’s (and Luke’s) rendering of Jesus’ phrase:
Give us this day our daily bread.
Please stick with me through some heavy linguistics. It will be worth it.
In Greek, which Matthew wrote and Jesus didn’t use when teaching his Lord’s/Kingdom/Father prayer, it says:
THE – BREAD – OF – US – THE – EPIOUSION – GIVE – TO – US – TODAY
Apparently, according to Danker’s Lexicon, the word epiousion was coined by the evangelists where they were translating Jesus’ Aramaic “Abba” prayer (see also J. Jerimias: Abba). Origen said early on that the word was coined by the evangelists.
The word exists nowhere else. In the New Testament or in secular Greek literature.
“Ousia” means substance/being. “Epi” means marked or designated “right on top of.” Think “epicenter.”
In depth-etymological terms, it can’t mean “daily” or “tomorrow’s bread” as so many have suggested.
We have to go with depth etymology, because we can’t go with any parallel Greek usage outside of “our” literature.
Thus they coined a Greek word to get at what Jesus was saying in Aramaic, because what he was saying was not to be contained in a normal “off the shelf” Greek word. The problem is, our current Aramaic versions of the New Testament are, in some ways, translations from the Greek. We don’t have pre-Luke/Matthew Aramaic versions of the gospels.
When doing a depth-etymology, it’s best to stick with the un-spun core-root meanings of the parts involved in the compound word.
Thus “designated-present-substance” is the best we can mine from the root words.
It unravels if we try to project it beyond the Greek into what Jesus may have said in his language–we end up with compound speculation.
But in hand, we have EPIOUSIA.
What do you think, based on what we have said, that it means?
I’ll take a stab at it:
Jesus saw provision as dynamic, and not as static. Everything we need comes out of the Father-substance (hence the Father prayer). Have a lunch box? Feed 5,000 people.
Need to pay taxes? Take the Krugerrand out of the fish’s mouth. The Father feeds and provides for us as he does the lilies and the birds.
Don’t store up treasures in barns. Rely on daily manna. Trust God for your abundance.
Get your provision from substance, don’t try to gather it from the circumstances around you.
The epiousion is the designated/marked substance from which our bread comes.
This is the abundance we are teaching a Robinwood Church. Not some form of American consumer greed.
The world is not a zero-sum game (more for you, less for me), it is an “open system.”
Give us of the designated substance our bread today. I know it’s not as “sexy” as Cranmer, but nothing in English is 🙂
What are your thoughts?