Pastor Ed and his talking dog

Pastor Ed blinked and looked at the invitation again. It was not his imagination. The big church on the highway wanted them to preach the sermon at their tenth anniversary. They wanted to pay him ten thousand dollars as an honorarium for the day’s work. And their invitation included a list of things that they were hoping he would see fit to include in his message that day.

Ed rubbed Rex’s ears as he read the list. The leaders of the big church wanted to be congratulated on their success. They wanted to be told how good it was that they had brought so many believers together so quickly. They wanted to be assured that the Lord’s blessings would continue to flow into their church because they were continuing to do the Lord’s work in a way he liked. Smiling gently, Ed took up a pen and a piece of stationery and wrote a polite letter, thanking them for their invitation and telling them that he probably was not the preacher they wanted for this special day.

He had not always been called Pastor Ed. When he first came to town, he had been Pastor Lee—Pastor Edward Lee when a first name was required. He had preached faithfully at the same congregation for thirty years. Some years it had grown; other years its membership had declined. Some families moved to other towns. Some faithful members had died and were buried in the local cemetery—Pastor Lee had conducted their funerals. He had taught adults and children, he had baptized new members, and he had brought members together in the church to talk through their disagreements and reconcile their conflicts. He had raised a son, Larry, who had gone to school and learned to be a pastor, then had come home to take his father’s place. Ed was semi-retired; he and Larry took turns preaching. With his son’s acceptance as Pastor Lee, the father had become affectionally known as Pastor Ed. Never had he sought the label; he never even particularly liked the blend of respect and familiarity. But he accepted the reality that his son was the leader of the congregation. He sat on the sidelines, pitched in to help once in a while, and allowed people to think of him as Pastor Ed.

The town’s population had been growing the last few years. First, some families had moved their way to get farther from the city. New houses had been built on the edge of town. Then new businesses appeared along the highway: fast food restaurants, and gas stations, and a motel, and then a Walmart. All the congregations had grown at least a little, but the new church on the highway had gathered many of the new families, as well as people who drove in from other towns around the county to see what the fuss was at this new church on the highway.

Now they wanted Pastor Ed, the longest-serving pastor in town, to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary. Chuckling, Ed signed his name to the note and addressed an envelope to the big church on the highway. He checked the desk drawer for stamps but found none. “Looks like I’ll have to buy another book of stamps,” he said to Rex. Ed took hold of the desk, pushed himself up to his feet, and headed toward the apartment door.

Ed had taken a retirement apartment near the center of the town after his wife died. Rex was his constant companion. A German Shepherd, Rex was loyal to Ed. He offered protection from threats, not that Ed ever felt threatened in the town that had become his home. Because Rex needed exercise, Ed kept in shape, walking his dog three or four times a day. Ed also had a purpose to his days, a reason to get out of bed since another living being depended upon his service. Over the years, Ed had recommended a pet dog or cat to many elderly people who felt as if they had become useless in the world. Getting a dog of his own as he moved into retirement had been an easy decision—a “no-brainer,” as Larry would have said.

The letter was mailed, and Ed nearly forgot about the invitation. Then, one evening, he heard a knock on the apartment door. Rex perked up his ears. Ed went to the door and greeted two men. He recognized the pastor of the big church on the highway; soon he learned that the other was head of the church’s anniversary committee. Ed welcomed them into his apartment, made them comfortable, and waited to hear what they had to say.

The committee head pulled Ed’s letter out of a leather-bound folder he was carrying. “We were sorry to get your refusal,” the man began. “We really want to include you in our anniversary service. We were wondering if you would prefer a higher honorarium, say maybe twelve thousand dollars.”

Ed shook his head. “I really don’t think…” he started to say.

“Fifteen thousand,” the pastor interrupted.

“The money isn’t the issue,” Ed told them. “My problem is with your suggestions for the message. All my life, all my career, I’ve never allowed anyone but the Lord to tell me what to preach. For every sermon, every message, I’ve always studied the Bible, prayed, and tried to follow the Spirit’s guidance. What the Lord shows me in his Word, that’s what I say from the pulpit. That’s why I really cannot accept your invitation, generous though it is.”

Both visitors started to speak, but the pastor from the big church on the highway waved his companion to silence. “Ed, we understand how you feel about this,” he assured his host. “We would never tell you what to preach. Those were just suggestions. Of course, we know that you will speak the Lord’s Word to us. That’s all we expect from you. But time’s running short, and the anniversary service is coming up soon. We need a preacher, and we really want you to be that preacher.”

Ed hesitated. So long as they left him free to preach what seemed right, guided by the Bible, he had no reason to refuse. “Let me sleep on it,” he suggested. “I’ll phone you tomorrow.”

“That’ll be fine,” they both assured him. With some additional small talk and some friendly attention to Rex (which the dog appreciated), they wound up the conversation and headed out the door.

That is why, a few weeks later, Pastor Ed found himself driving out to the big church on the highway. The head of the committee had held to his pastor’s promise of fifteen thousand dollars, but he had asked a couple small additional tasks of Ed. He wanted Ed to open the prayer meeting of the congregation’s leaders at the beginning of the day, before people began arriving for the service. He also wanted Ed to speak at the Bible class that some of the members attended before the service. Overwhelmed by the size of the honorarium offered by the ten-year-old church, Ed agreed to their requests.

At the table where the leaders of the church were gathered, Ed felt out of place. Their shoes were shiny, while his were drab. Their suits were crisp and fitted to their frames, while his seemed loose and shapeless. Their ties were bright and colorful, while his seemed quiet and muted. But when the pastor of the big church said his name, and all eyes turned to him, Ed merely said, “Let us pray.” He closed his eyes and bowed his head; he assumed that the rest of the men did the same. “Lord, thank you for this day,” he prayed. “Thank you for this celebration and for the people who are gathered here today. Bless this time together. Let your Word be heard and heeded according to your will. You have promised that your Word is always effective. To those among us who need to repent of pride and arrogance, grant a spirt of humble repentance. To those among us who need to turn away from the world and embrace instead the riches of your grace, grant a spirit of humble repentance. To sinners who need to be called from their sinful ways and to open their hearts to you, grant a spirit of humble repentance. Provide us all with eyes that look to your cross, minds that are shaped by your power, and hearts that are open to your guiding. Not to us, O Lord, but to you be the glory forever and ever. In the name of Jesus. Amen.”

A few murmured Amens signaled the acceptance of his prayer, but the looks on the faces Ed saw when he opened his eyes were not so accepting. “Thank you for that brief and heart-felt prayer,” the pastor of the church barked at Ed. “We look forward to hearing more of your wisdom as the morning progresses.” After some other words were said and announcements were delivered, the pastor took Ed by his arm and guided him to the room where the Bible study would be held.

“That wasn’t quite what we expected,” said the pastor in the brief moment they had together in the hall.

“I told you, I can only say that the Lord guides me to say,” Ed whispered back.

“Well, you’ll have a second chance with the Bible class,” the pastor of the big church told him as he guided Ed into the room and led him to the teacher’s seat in front of the gathering students. Ed took a minute to reflect as he watched the others find their places. Even with eyes opened, he silently prayed that God’s Holy Spirit would guide him and would keep him faithful to the Word. Once again he was introduced, and all eyes turned to him. He hoped that his voice did not quaver as he told the group to open their Bibles to Second Timothy, the third and fourth chapters. “We’ll be looking at what God himself has to say about the power of his Word,” he told them.

Ed steered them through the verses about God’s Word being “breathed out,” or inspired, by God. He spoke about teaching, reproof, correction, and training for righteousness, about being competent as Christians, equipped for every good work. The students smiled and nodded. Those who joined the conversation were eager to tell Ed about the good works they had been doing in the big church on the highway.

Gently, Ed guided them backwards to verses he considered even more important. “Not only does the Bible steer us in this world,” he said, “but it offers us a better world. It makes us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’ This is not our doing—it is by grace, a gift of God, not earned by good works.” In the silence, Ed continued to speak about the power of the cross of Jesus Christ and about Christ’s message to “repent and believe the gospel.”

But, as the end of the class was drawing closer, Ed saw that he was in danger of missing the message he knew he had been sent to share. He guided the students to look at the beginning of chapter four, to talk about preaching the word, “in season and out of season,” reproving and rebuking and exhorting “with complete patience and teaching.” Drawing a deep breath, Ed read on, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Ed had heard cliches about deafening silences, silences in which one could hear a pin drop. Now he heard such a silence. Eyes darted to and fro, as the students looked at one another but seemed unable to look at their guest teacher. Ed returned to his main theme. “Jesus came into the world with a message that all should repent and believe the gospel,” he reminded them. “When we preach genuine repentance, based on the commandments of God, and when we preach genuine faith, based on the promises of God, then we cannot go far from the truth. We cannot be far from the kingdom of God.” With a few more general statements along those lines, Ed brought the lesson to a close. The students silently closed their Bibles, stood, and left the room, on their way to the service in the big church, where Ed once again would be called upon to bless their assembly and congratulate them on their anniversary.

In a moment, Ed was alone in the classroom with the pastor of the big church. The pastor repeated what he had said before, “That wasn’t what we expected.”

“I told you, I can only say those things that the Lord gives me to say,” Ed responded.

“But how can you be so sure?” the pastor asked him. “Just because you’re reading from the Bible, how do you know that these words are meant from the Lord for this day? What gives you the right to talk to us about repentance, about rebuking and correcting, about itching ears? We’re paying you to preach. Why won’t you say the things we told you to say?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Pastor Ed said.

“Try me,” the other pastor urged.

Ed took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You remember Rex,” he said, “my dog, the German Shepherd. He was at my apartment the night you visited.” The pastor of the big church on the highway nodded, and Ed continued. “Most mornings, Rex cooperates and is easy to care for, but this morning he was nothing but trouble. I took him for his morning walk, and instead of walking along and then doing his business, he was wild, darting around, tangling his leash around trees and then around my ankles. Finally, I had to slap his flank, just to get his attention and to get him to behave.

“For the rest of the walk he was better, but as we were going up the steps inside, he started acting up again. In fact, he nearly tripped me and knocked me down the steps. I scolded him then like I’ve never scolded him before.

“Then, when I was ready to leave, Rex lay down in front of the door and wouldn’t let me out of the apartment. I tried everything—gentle words, scolding, dog treats, everything I could think of, but he wouldn’t get out of my way and let me out the door. Finally, afraid I was going to be late, I lost my temper. I grabbed a fly swatter and gave him a good thump on his rump. That’s when Rex spoke to me.”

“Your dog talked.”

“Yes, he talked, in clear language like you and I are using now. ‘What have I done, that makes you hit me this morning?’ he asked. And I said, ‘You’ve been a bad dog, disobeying me and getting in my way, almost knocking me down the steps, and now making me late for this service.’ ‘And have I ever acted this way before?’ he asked me, and I said, ‘No.’

“Then I remembered about Balaam and his donkey and the Angel of the Lord. I remembered how the donkey had saved Balaam’s life when the Angel was ready to kill Balaam for taking money to tell people what they wanted to hear instead of what God intended for him to say. I didn’t see any angel. Rex didn’t speak another word. But I knew that God was warning me, that I had better speak his Word to you all this morning, nothing more and nothing less.”

The pastor of the big church on the highway shook his head and snorted. Beyond that, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. His introduction of Pastor Ed as guest preacher was not enthusiastic, not like the introduction he had given before the prayer or before the Bible class. But Pastor Ed was undaunted. He began with a brief congratulations to the church for its tenth anniversary, but then he proceeded to preach to them about Jesus. He reminded them that the message of Jesus boils down to two words, repent and believe. And he told them that no one can do either of these things without God’s help. “We cannot repent properly, and we cannot believe properly, without the work of the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.’

“Now God created us for a purpose, to live in his image. For God is love, and God expects us to love. But we all have failed. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. We all need a Savior, and Jesus is the Savior we need. Now Jesus tells us to repent and believe. Without these words of Jesus, we could never repent properly, and we could never believe properly. But through these words, Jesus changes us. He sends his Spirit into our hearts so we repent and we believe. Like the lame man on the stretcher, told by Jesus to get up and walk, we get up and walk. We do these things, not by our power, but by the power of the Lord, power that comes to us through his Word.”

They hadn’t thrown him out yet, so Pastor Ed continued preaching. “We all want to be the stars. We all want to take credit for the good things we do for the Lord. But, when we have done our best, what we have done is still not enough. We cannot earn anything by our good works. All we can say of our best efforts is, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ (Luke 17:10). But Jesus is the star. Jesus, the Son of God, is the Sun that shines into our lives and makes us citizens of his kingdom. Jesus obeys his Father on our behalf. Jesus pays his life as a ransom for our sins. Jesus defeats our enemies, rising to grant us a resurrection like his. Jesus makes the difference. Not to us, but to Jesus Christ alone, be thanks and praise and glory for this day.”

Pastor Ed knew that he would not be thanked for his sermon. He did not even know if he would be given the money he had been promised. But he knew that he had done his duty for the Lord. And he knew that, when he came back to his apartment, Rex would be there, loyal and faithful as always, sufficient reward for the day and a reminder of God’s grace and guidance.

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Early medieval civilization

More than fifteen hundred years ago, pirates captured a British boy named Patrick from the largest of the British Isles. They sold him as a slave on the second-largest island, the island known as Ireland. Patrick was British, but not in the sense of Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons were only beginning to invade Britain at that time. Patrick was a Celtic Briton, trained in some Roman ways (including Christianity). He would become the patron saint of the Irish; he is the Saint Patrick who is dimly remembered every 17th of March with leprechauns, shamrocks, parades, and green beer.

After a few years, Patrick escaped from slavery. He ended up in France, where he joined a monastery and became active in the Christian monastic life. That life included the preservation of holy and historic texts, including the Bible and the Church fathers, but also various classic Greek and Roman writings. Patrick remembered the pagan Irish who had been his masters, and he felt a yearning to bring them the Christian Gospel. Sent as a missionary, Patrick preached the Gospel in Ireland. He also established monasteries like the one where he had lived in France. While the various Germanic tribes stirred around the mainland and the largest of the British Isles, Christianity and its literate tradition remained strong in Ireland. When Europe became more settled, Irish missionaries carried their Christian teachings and traditions back to Britain and the mainland. Like other Germanic tribes, the Franks embraced this form of Christianity, and in so doing they become the heirs of Greco-Roman civilization.

The same civilization was continuing unbroken in the Byzantine Empire. The western version of those traditions differed in small ways from the eastern version; over time, those differences would increase. Charlemagne was especially interested in preserving and spreading the literate civilization of the monasteries. His royal court included literate monks from the regions he ruled and also from beyond those regions. Even later raids from the Vikings could not extinguish the light of European civilization that had been inherited from Greece and Rome and had been perpetuated in the monastic movement, especially in Ireland.

Meanwhile, culture in western Europe had not come to a standstill. The Church was not merely preserving treasured documents from the past; it was also producing new literature, beginning with the Roman bishops Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great. Other great writers of the early medieval time included Boethius (who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy), the writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and the Venerable Bede. All these writers contributed to the progress of civilization that was happening in Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Many Christians joined the monasteries. Others supported the monasteries with gifts, including bequests of land. By the time Carolingian rulers were being replaced by Capetians and Ottonians (Saxon kings named Otto who were crowned as emperors), some congregations and monasteries possessed great wealth in land, serfs, and treasures. This led to divergence from the original intention of monasteries, even abuse of the Christian religion. Rather than keeping their pledges of chastity, poverty, and obedience, monks had live-in girlfriends. They ate better than the peasants and even than some of the nobility. They used their influence to control the politics of the regions where they lived. Through these abuses, they were giving Christ and his Church a bad name in Europe.

A reform movement began in the 800s and gathered steam in the 900s, reversing this trend of worldliness and deceit in the Church. Associated with the Cluny Abbey in Aquitaine—then in the country of Burgundy, but now part of France—the Cluny Reform (or Cluniac Reform) spread throughout France, Spain, Italy, and England. Monasteries following the new set of rules (which reaffirmed the goals of earlier monasticism) networked with one another and were, for a time, the largest religious influence in Europe. Several leaders of this reform movement were later elected popes. Although Protestant Christians often think of reformation as a series of events during the sixteenth century, the Cluny Reform and later reformations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries also helped sustain the life of genuine Christianity in a world that frequently tempts Christian leaders to depart from Christ’s paths and to travel their own direction. J.

Down dooby-do down down (semicolon)

Breaking up is hard to do. That’s not just a song from the Bubble Gum Era of rock music (the early 1960s); it’s also a fact, one that is hard to deny.

This summer would be a bad time to end a relationship. I say that because of the ubiquitous song “Be Alright,” written and sung by Dean Lewis. (“I know you love her, but it’s over, mate….”) If I were dealing with the aftermath of an ended relationship, I would probably want to destroy my radio the next time that song began.

That’s unfortunate, because most of that song contains good advice. Alright: the “bottoms up to forget” is bad advice, because drinking only increases the pain; it doesn’t make it go away. But the rest of the song is fitting: breaking up does hurt a bit for a while, and after a while things do get better.

I have experienced ended relationships, and I have not forgotten the pain. But I survived—life goes on, and new joys replace the old. I have encouraged others when they were grieving ended relationships. Being the supportive friend can be difficult—you see the light, but they only see the darkness. You know there is hope, but they don’t want to hear about hope. For a while, it seems that they want to cling to the pain, to coddle it, to make it the center of their lives, the meaning of their existence. For most people, that stage also ends, and life goes on.

What would I add to Dean Lewis’ words of wisdom? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s still worth saying: love makes us vulnerable. When we love someone, our love makes it possible for us to be hurt. That is true of more than romantic love: family relationships can be painful, and even friendships can be painful. But the possibility of pain—even the reality of pain—is worth bearing because of the immense, immeasurable value of love itself.

Even the Almighty God has made himself vulnerable to the pain of rejection. He loves his fallen creatures. He grieves when any of us turn away from him and reject his gifts. The lover whose loved one chooses someone else has a taste of the holy, divine grief of God. The lover whose loved one wants to end the relationship knows how Christ felt when Judas betrayed him for money, when all the disciples ran away, and when Peter said three times that he did not know who Jesus is.

Love is central to God’s nature. Love flows among the Persons of the Holy Trinity outside of time and space. Creation happened as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. We are created in God’s image, meaning that we are created so we can love God and so we can love one another. When God speaks of our relationship with him in terms of family—even in terms of marriage and romantic love—he is not taking an experience we know and using it as a metaphor. He is speaking a truth that is not metaphor: he is saying that he loves us with all the passion of human romantic love.

The cross proves that God would do anything for us. Perhaps God allows us the pain of broken relationships in this lifetime so we can look at the cross in a new light. Our minds might not grasp the connection, but our hearts can feel the love of God that would bear a cross and accept its pain and suffering, all for the sake of love.

Breaking up is hard to do. God does not want to break up with his people. Through the message of the Bible and in the life of the Church, God nourishes our loving relationship with him—our faith—so we remain in a proper relationship with him and are not in danger of breaking up with him. For all the messy complicated problems of the Church on earth, it is valuable as a link to God, who pours his blessings into our lives through his Church. J.

Must be March Madness

Most Sunday mornings find me in a small congregation south of town. When I say “small,” I mean that a good Sunday has an attendance in the low double digits. But the congregation survives for two reasons: their preacher is a part-time pastor who has a full-time job downtown (benefits such as health insurance included); and the congregation rents out the building when they aren’t using it. On Friday nights Alcoholics Anonymous meets there, and on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons a Spanish-speaking congregation of a different denomination has services and classes there.

When I arrived this morning, I saw that the power company was doing repairs down the road, and they had parked their trailer with equipment and parts on the church parking lot, taking up about four spaces. That seemed rather thoughtless, what with it being Sunday and all, but we worked around it.

Then, when we got inside, we saw that the other congregation’s praise band had forgotten to put away their equipment after practicing on Saturday. They’ve left a few things out from time to time, but never the entire set-up. So three of us got busy and packed away all their instruments and equipment in the side room where they belong, and our service still started on time.

We decided that the cause of all this equipment in our way must be March Madness.

This afternoon a U-Haul van stopped in front of the house. Soon an Amazon deliveryman was carrying three boxes to the door—a small one, a medium one, and a large one. When I met him at the door, he warned me they were heavy; and they were heavy. Together they contained twenty copies of my novel, I Remember Amy, which has just been published.

They are huge, about 450 pages, and when I opened one I saw why. When I submitted the text, I inadvertently had left it double-spaced. Remember, I wrote the first draft seven years ago. I had double-spaced it then to print a copy and edit it by hand. So now I have a simple novel that, from the outside, looks like it ought to rival War and Peace. I was able, this afternoon, to correct the spacing and resubmit the text, cutting the size of the book in half. I also dropped the price to twelve dollars. (The Kindle version is still four dollars.) But the first people to receive free copies of the book will no doubt be daunted by its size. Honestly, I’ve seen phone books smaller than this edition of the novel.

So, that’s my March Madness story for this morning. I hope each of you is doing well and that all your teams are winning. J.

Advent thoughts: December 4

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17—read Numbers 24:15-19).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east, following a star. From the appearance of that star, they knew that a king had been born in Israel. The wise men came to worship him and to offer him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Why would wise men associate the appearance of a star with the birth of a king in Israel? And why would they wish to worship such a king? The answer appears to lie in the prophecy of Balaam as recorded in Numbers 24. Balaam was a prophet of the true God, even though he was not an Israelite. He was not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even though God had chosen that family to be a holy nation, God’s grace was not exclusively for that one family or that one nation. There were always believers among the other nations of the world, even kings and prophets who honored the true God. Balaam was one of those prophets.

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. God directed them around the countries of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, because those nations were kindred to the Israelites. However, Balak king of Moab feared the Israelites and their might. Therefore, he tried to hire Balaam, prophet of the true God, to curse the Israelites.

Balaam did not curse them; instead, he blessed the Israelites. Three times he blessed them. The third time the blessing turned to prophecy, and Balaam spoke of the blessing for the entire world that would come from Abraham’s family while they lived in the Promised Land. Balaam spoke of the coming King as a star and as a scepter. These words were preserved by Moses in the book of Numbers. They quite likely were written and remembered in other places as well.

Therefore, when Jesus was born, wise men were led by a star to come and honor him. These wise men, or Magi, were scholars, advisors to a government. They could be compared to Cabinet officers in the American government. The first group called Magi arose in the Persian Empire, but Egyptian kings and Babylonian kings had also had advisors. Their job was to know as much as could be known about everything: history, languages, literature, religions, science, and any other subject that might influence or affect the government they served. If anyone outside of Israel would have known Balaam’s prophecy, it would be a group of Magi.

From where did they come? Some say Babylon, and some say Persia. There is a significant clue, though, in the gifts they brought. Since ancient times, when representatives of different governments have met, they have exchanged products of their homeland with one another. Presidents still do this today. Only one place in the world produces gold and frankincense and myrrh in any abundance. That place is Arabia.

This would not be the last time that a group of Arabs caused consternation to the government in Jerusalem. That was not their intention, though. They came to honor a King. And the gifts they brought, products of Arabia, were also highly symbolic of the nature of that King. Gold recognized his kingship. Frankincense recognized that he is also a Priest, for incense is used in the worship of God. Myrrh recognized that he would be not only Priest but also Sacrifice. In fact, when Jesus was buried after offering the sacrifice that defeated his enemies, his burial was accomplished with strips of linen, with aloes, and with myrrh.

Balaam is remembered largely for the fact that his donkey once spoke to him (Numbers 22:28-30). Far more important is that he foretold the star that would signal the birth of a King. That King would be honored by foreigners even though he was rejected by his own people. From this we see the growth of the Church which contains people from every nation, language, tribe, and culture, all honoring the same Savior and citizens of the same Kingdom. Thanks be to God! J.

Why Christians worship

Every Sunday Christians get out of bed and get themselves ready for church. A few walk to church or take mass transit; most drive. Some Christians wear their finest clothing—a suit and tie, or a fancy dress and perhaps a hat—while others dress more casually—everyday shirts and slacks, or perhaps jeans, or sometimes even shorts. Most have breakfast before church; a few fast. They gather, and they worship. Some of them attend a class before or after the service. And, of course, not all Christians who worship gather on Sunday morning. Some gather on Saturdays, others on Wednesday nights, and still others at other times of the week. Some have very formal services: traditional and liturgical, following patterns that were set early in the history of the Church. Others are far more relaxed—they sing a few songs, they hear Bible readings and a message, and they pray together. Christian worship practices are very diverse, conducted in a great many languages in a great many styles, sometimes with more than a thousand in one place and other times with fewer than ten people in the building.

Why do Christians worship? The best beginning to the answer might be the negative way—offering a few suggestions that are not the reasons Christians worship.

  • Christians do not worship as a good work to earn God’s approval and obtain his blessings. Christians are saved by grace; not by works. Their works (including worship) are a response to being forgiven, redeemed and rescued. Their works (including worship) do not cause them to be forgiven, redeemed, and rescued.
  • Christians do not worship because God needs their attention. God is complete within himself; God does not need anything from anyone. Some creative writers have written fantasy novels in which gods require worship and fade to nothing when they are forgotten. The true God would exist without worship; he exists outside of space and time and is fully self-sustaining.
  • Christians do not worship to flatter God. They do not expect special favors from God because they attended a service. They do not think that God owes them anything because they came to church, sang his praises, heard the sermon, prayed the prayers, and put money in the offering plate.
  • Christians do not worship for purely selfish reasons. They do not gather for worship only for their own individual benefit. They do not come to church to be entertained or amused. A church service cannot compete for excitement, action, and suspense with a sporting contest or a good Hollywood movie. Nor should it try to compete with those events.
  • Christians do not worship to impress anyone else. They do not come to church to exhibit their piety, their faithfulness, or their wardrobe. They do not want to be admired for their singing. They do not gather to try to make a good impression upon anyone.

Of course, any gathering of Christians may include some people who think they are there for one of these reasons. There may be some who think they are earning rewards from God and others who want to impress their fellow Christians. There may be some who come to be enlightened or entertained and others who expect special blessings from God because they came to church. In fact, the real reasons for Christian worship are similar to some of the misperceptions listed above. Someone who has been told why Christians worship may have misunderstood the lesson they were taught. Others may be part of the crowd merely out of habit, not stopping to ask why they are there and what they expect from the service.

Why do Christians worship? First, we worship because God wants us to worship him. In the Bible he commands our worship. He says, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).  “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 19:20).

Yet if worship is commanded, it still is not a good work that earns God’s approval. Obedience to God’s commands does not cause his love and mercy and his forgiveness. Rather, God’s love and mercy and forgiveness cause a Christian to do good works, including worship. A tree is recognized by its fruit (Matthew 7:20), but sound apples do not cause the apple tree to be healthy. Instead, when the apple tree is healthy, it will bear sound apples.

God wants us to worship him, not because he needs us, but because we need him. We need to remember his goodness; therefore, we praise him. We need to remember the things he has done for us; therefore, we thank him. We need to remember that we are sinners desperately needing rescue; therefore, we confess our sins to him. We could do any of these things alone, and most Christians probably do. But God also wants us to gather as a group to do these things so we can strengthen one another, support one another, and encourage one another as members of the same family.

After all, God loves us. He wants what is best for us. These gatherings are beneficial to Christians. And, because he loves us, God wants to hear from us. He does not need us to honor and praise him, but he knows that such activity is good for us. Our finest works—even our finest worship—is worth no more than the crayon drawing of a Kindergartener. Yet the love of God accepts these gifts and, in a sense, proudly displays them on the door of his heavenly refrigerator.

That is the second reason we worship. We need fellowship with God. When we gather with fellow Christians in the name of Christ, he is with us. That is true whether the gathering is in a church building, a private living room, or under a tree. Gathering in his name means more than gathering because we are Christians. Four Christians playing golf together are not the Church—not even if each of them whispers prayers of supplication or of thanksgiving on the putting green. Church happens when Christians examine the Word of God together, especially when they are seeking God’s promises of forgiveness to share with one another. Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are part of the reason Christians gather; neither of these Sacraments is a private act, but they happen when Christians gather in Christ’s name.

Therefore, God speaks to his people through his people. He communicates with us through one another. First, he spoke to the world through apostles and prophets. Now, he speaks to the world as his people repeat the message of the apostles and prophets. Some are called to preach the Word, to administer the Sacraments, and to lead the worship. But all those who participate in the service are sharing the Word of God with one another. However they contribute to the service, even if only in silent prayers, they are strengthening the body of Christ by their presence. They are encouraging their fellow saints. They are doing the work that God gave to his Church to accomplish.

All this is closely attached to the third reason Christians worship. God does bless us as we worship. We are not gathering selfishly to demand his blessings. We do not arrogantly tell God how and when to bless us. But he loves us so much that, when we gather as the Church, God gives us good things. Through the promises of his Word he gives us the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the guarantee of eternal life in a perfect new creation. He gives us victory over the devil, over our sins, over the sinful world, and even over death itself. He gives us the strength to continue living as his people in this world as we look forward to the world to come.

For this reason, Christian worship is often called the Divine Service. When we enter God’s house, we are his guests. He serves us. In a sense, every Christian service is like Christmas, with gifts to be opened and celebrated. Those who miss the service for no good reason are depriving themselves. They are skipping Christmas, leaving gifts meant for them sitting under the tree. We come to church for fellowship with God. We leave bearing gifts that he lavishes on us because he cares so much about us.

As these gifts are given in the service, one Christian might be entertained. Another might be uplifted. A third might learn something new. Even for the Christian who does not feel entertained or uplifted or educated, the service still has benefits. It might strike some Christians as tradition-bound or repetitive or boring. Especially the traditional, liturgical service has been blamed for boring believers and visitors alike. But the very pattern of the traditional Christian service is family-friendly. The child who has not learned how to read still learns the liturgy and takes part in it and receives benefits from it. The young mother holding a baby can follow along because she knows what to expect. The elderly grandmother with failing eyesight and failing hearing also gains the benefit of repeating the same liturgy she has known since childhood. And all of them—the young child, the mother, the grandmother—are receiving from God Himself the forgiveness of their sins, the guarantee of everlasting life, and a share in the victory won by Christ for all his people.

The problem with traditions is not that they never change or that people find them boring. In fact, traditions do alter over time. The problem with traditions is that they require explanation. Simply doing them does not give them meaning. Learning what the tradition represents, why it has been preserved in the Church for so long, and what it communicates about God and his love—that makes traditions both meaningful and valuable.

A girl watched her mother prepare the pot roast for the oven. Before she put the roast in the pan, the mother sliced off the end of the roast and put it sidewise next to the larger piece of meat. “Why did you do that, Mommy?” the little girl asked. “I’m not sure,” her mother answered. “My mother always did that. We’ll have to phone Grandma and see why we’ve always done that.” Grandma, when she answered the phone, was just as puzzled about the question. “I’ve always done that,” she told her granddaughter. “I think my mother must have done that too. You know, her mind is still pretty sharp. Why don’t you call her at the retirement village and ask her the same question?

The elderly lady laughed when she heard the question. “When your grandfather and I first were married,” she explained, “the only roasting pan I had was very small. I had to cut the roast that way to make it fit in the pan. I guess I just kept doing it, and it was handed down from generation to generation.”

Traditions that are not explained become useless, even harmful. Consult Psalm 50 and Isaiah 1:10-15 to see how angry God became with his chosen people when they went through the motions of worship and sacrifice without thinking about what they were doing and without putting their faith in the Lord.

But the enemies of tradition—who hate no sentence more greatly than “We’ve never done it that way before—make a mistake when they toss out all traditions, the beneficial along with those that have lost their meaning. Different is not always better. Before making a change to a long-standing tradition, those in charge need to ask, “How will this make the service better? How will this help people see the promises of God more clearly? What will be lost to all of us if we make this change?”

Traditions hold people together. They tie generations together. They preserve the past and help people to learn their history. Every group of people has a set of traditions, and often those who mutter against tradition have ingrained habits that have become as traditional to them as the old ways they despise.

Therefore, this fall and winter I will be writing from time to time about the traditional worship of the Church. Some readers will find these lessons very familiar; others might be learning about some Christian traditions for the very first time, even though they have been Christians for a long time. I will be presenting these traditions in three sets. First I will write about the parts of Christian worship from beginning to end, explaining why the traditional liturgy contains various elements. Then I will cover traditions of the Christian calendar, from Christmas and Easter to the less known holidays, as well as the seasons of the Church Year. Last I will speak about various other traditions associated with Christian worship—traditions about the architecture of the church building, traditions about the way that worship leaders dress, and traditions about the items used to serve Holy Communion, among others. May our understanding and appreciation of traditional Christian worship grow through these explanations. J.

Thy Kingdom come

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…Thy Kingdom come….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

Salvageable adds: Scholars speak sometimes of the three kingdoms of God, although they do not intend to say that these are distinct kingdoms. No, they overlap, and a person can be part of more than one of God’s kingdoms. They are called the kingdom of power, the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of power is creation, over which Jesus rules right now. The kingdom of grace is the Church, including saints in Paradise with Jesus and believers still living on the earth. The kingdom of glory is the coming new creation, in which all things will be perfected, all evil will be removed, and all the saints will live with Jesus forever. They will be royalty because of their family relationship to the King.

We do not need to pray that the kingdom of power will come. Creation already is here. We pray about that kingdom, though, when we pray for daily bread.

We pray for the kingdom of grace—for the Church. We pray for pastors and other church leaders, that God would keep them faithful and would work through their ministries. We pray for missionaries spreading the good news about Jesus. We pray for people we love, especially those who seem not to believe in Jesus right now. We pray that the kingdom of grace would come to more people so they can be redeemed and can enter the kingdom of grace and await eternal life in the kingdom of glory. The Lord’s Prayer is a missionary prayer.

At the same time, we are praying for ourselves. We pray that we would continue to mature in the faith—as a famous song from Godspell says, to see God more clearly, follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly. On the one hand, there are not different levels of faith. The faith of every Christian is identical, because it is faith in the same Savior, the same Lord, and the same promises. The Christian life is easier, though, for believers who have stopped measuring themselves, who have put their full trust in the Lord, and who are being transformed into the image of Christ, loving God and neighbors according to the example of Christ and by his strength.

Even as we pray for the kingdom of grace, we also pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory: “Maranatha—come, Lord Jesus!” We look forward to the Day when we see Jesus coming in the clouds, bringing with him all the saints of Paradise, raising all the dead, and inaugurating the new creation. We pray for that Day when all sorrows and sufferings will cease, when sin and evil will no longer exist, and when death will no longer be an end to life. That Day is already guaranteed through the redemption of Christ. By his life and death and resurrection, he has conquered sin, death, and evil. By his life, death, and resurrection, he shares his victory with us. Therefore, we do not fear the Day of the Lord. We look forward to it with hope and excitement, and we pray for its coming. Yet it has been delayed for the sake of the work of the kingdom of grace. There are yet more people—at least one more person—who will come to faith and enter the kingdom of grace before it all becomes the kingdom of glory.  J.

Historic Perspective

Jesus Christ established the Holy Christian Church by his preaching, his ministry, and his authority. He selected apostles and sent them to proclaim his message of repentance and redemption through his sacrifice and his resurrection. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. After Jesus died and rose again, he sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, and his apostles began preaching in Jerusalem and Judea. Their mission expanded to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Traveling through the Roman Empire, the apostles founded congregations faithful to Jesus Christ and his message. Congregations were established even outside the Roman Empire in Ethiopia, India, and other places.

As the apostles wrote the books that were gathered as the New Testament, they countered distortions of their message. One distortion was that of the legalists or judaizers, who tried to include laws and regulations in the Church’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Another distortion was that of the Gnostics, who tried to blend Greek philosophy with the message of the Church. Platonists and Stoics thought that the ideal world consisted of mind or spirit. They saw the physical world as tainted and evil. Gnostics declared that the world had been made by an inferior god, but that sparks of divinity had fallen into the world, becoming people. They changed the message of Jesus and the apostles, denying that Jesus had taken on a human body, that he had suffered and died on a cross to redeem sinners, and that he rose again and promises resurrection to all his people. The apostles and later Christian writers rejected these false teachings.

For three hundred years, Christianity and various Gnostic movements coexisted with many other religions in the Roman Empire. The Romans were always happy to add another god, but they did not wish any god to claim exclusive power and authority. Christians were often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted for their rejection of other gods. When Constantine came to power, he made Christianity legal and respectable, even declaring himself to be a Christian. Church buildings were constructed and Christians preached openly. Constantine discovered, though, that two competing versions of Christianity were being proclaimed. One said that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternal and almighty, equal to the Father in every way. The other said that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by the Father and is not almighty and not equal to the Father. Constantine called for a council of Christian leaders to settle this dispute. They met, prayed, studied the Bible, discussed what it says, and issued a document which declares that Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds were made, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Being of one substance with the Father….” Anyone who claimed to be a Christian and denied these statements was labeled a heretic.

This council set a precedent for the Christian Church. Over the following centuries, additional councils gathered to consider other disputes within the Church, most of which concerned the two natures of Christ (the relationship of his divinity and his humanity). After prayer, Bible study, and discussion, Truth was distinguished from heresy, and statements were written to provide Christians a clearer understanding of Truth. In these councils, church leaders generally were treated as equals, but the greatest respect was given to the church leaders from five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople.

Three hundred years after Constantine, a great challenge to Christianity arose in Arabia. Muhammad (according to Muslim tradition) was puzzled by the many versions of religion represented in the city of Mecca, including various groups of Christians who called one another heretics. Instead of studying the Bible for himself, he turned to prayer and meditation. One day a being of light appeared to Muhammad. Claiming to be the angel Gabriel, he promised Muhammad messages from God. For the rest of his life, Muhammad received and shared those messages, which are gathered together as the Quran. Like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, the Quran says that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all that exists. This God sends prophets to the world, telling people how to live their lives and threatening judgment and punishment on those who break his rules. The commandments of the Quran are much like those found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Even some historical accounts from those books are reported also in the Quran. Jesus, though, is labeled a prophet and no more than a prophet. The Quran declares that God has no Son. It requires every person to be his or her own savior rather than looking to Jesus as Savior.

This new religion emerged from Arabia with military power, conquering lands from India to Spain, including the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Christians and Jews were tolerated in Muslim Lands as “peoples of the book,” but they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were ineligible for government jobs. Many Christians converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity survived in Europe, in the Byzantine Empire, and in pockets elsewhere in Africa and Asia, even as far away as China, as well as a minority in the Muslim empire.

The two remaining centers of Christianity, Rome and Constantinople, grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They debated whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. They differed in determining when to celebrate Christmas and Easter. They differed over the place of religious artwork, or icons, in the Church. Most significantly, though, they debated about authority. The patriarch in Constantinople remained subject to the Byzantine emperor, but the pope in Rome even crowned emperors. Their debates peaked in 1054, when the pope declared that anyone who denies that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic, while the patriarch declared that anyone who calls the pope the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic. Those who agreed with the pope called themselves Catholic Christians, while those who agreed with the patriarch called themselves Orthodox Christians, labels which remain to this day.

Over the centuries, the Church endured times of corruption and scandal and times of reformation. In the 1200s, heresies were battled (such as the Albigensian, or Cathari, movement, which claimed that believers could stop sinning in this world and no longer needed the Church and its sacraments), while successful reforms were led by Dominic and Francis, among others. These reformers created new orders in the Church which established universities in the major cities of Europe. After a century of political turmoil—which at one point included three men claiming to be the true pope—the Church became less flexible, condemning as heretics such reformers as Jan Huss and Martin Luther.

The reformation that faced this hostility led to a fracturing of the Church. Later waves of reform created further divisions. By the twentieth century, hundreds of denominations had been created. They were labeled in various ways: some for individual reformers (Lutheran, Mennonite, Wesleyan), some for unique teachings or practices (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal), and some for their forms of organization (Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian). Many carried labels which rightly belong to all true Christians (Church of God, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Apostolic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic). Often those that are not called Catholic or Orthodox are lumped together as Protestant in spite of their many differences. Meanwhile, many of the heresies rejected by the early Church’s councils were revived. Russellites (now called Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach that Jesus, as the Son of God, is created, neither eternal nor almighty. Many Protestant groups teach new versions of Nestorianism and Pelagianism. Legalism is rampart among Christians. Newly rediscovered Gnostic writings are described as if they have equal weight to the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

Overlaying this history of the Church is the history of change regarding communication. Sets of scrolls used two thousand years ago were replaced by the codex, a set of flat sheets attached along one edge (commonly referred to as a book). Handwritten texts were superseded by printed texts when the Chinese technology of the printing press was adapted for European literature. Wood-pulp paper replaced cotton-rag paper, making books and other publications far less expensive. Electronic communication through computers and the internet, along with electronic books, are but the latest wave in the variety of ways that God’s Word is shared (as well as various interpretations of that Word).

Throughout the history of the Church, Christian leaders have spoken strongly against heresies. Paul wrote harsh words about the legalists. Martin Luther was highly critical of the pope and those who supported him. Written communication in any form is hindered by the lack of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice which assists in spoken communication. This is especially true in the present age of electronic communication. As a result, sometimes discussions of doctrine deteriorate into mutual rejection and insults.

All of this is simply context to my upcoming post about how we speak to one another—and to the rest of the world—about God’s Truth. J.

Novella

Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.

“Your body is a temple of God”–part two

Last month I wrote this post to demonstrate that, when the apostle Paul wrote that “your body is a temple of God,” he was referring to the entire Church and not to individual Christians. The “you” of “your body” is plural, but he speaks of one temple, not many temples. But what does it mean to call the Church a temple of God?

People of many different religions have built temples. Ancient Sumer had temples; ancient Egypt had temples. These temples were built for gods so that believers in those gods would have a place to contact their gods. Temples were built, not because gods needed homes, but because people needed connections with the gods they trusted and worshipped.

When God spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave Moses the design for a tent which would be a moving temple. This tent (often called the Tabernacle) was to be in the center of the campground when Israel was at rest. The Tabernacle represented God’s presence among his people. Animals were sacrificed in the Tabernacle as part of Israel’s connection with God. The lives and blood of the animals were given to God, pictures of the sacrifice God’s Son would make on the cross to remove the sins of the world. Even the tent was a picture of Jesus. When John wrote “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), the verb translated by “made his dwelling” refers to the pitching of a tent.

King David wanted to build a temple for God in Jerusalem. Through the prophet Nathan, God declined David’s offer. He said that instead of letting David build a house for God, God would build a house for David. That house would be a son (or descendant) of David who would rule an eternal kingdom. David may have thought that the promised Son of David was his son Solomon, but Solomon did not match the terms of the Promised Son. Solomon began to rule before David died, but the Promised Son was to come after David died. Solomon sinned and was forgiven for his sins, but the Promised Son bore the burden of the world’s sins and atoned for those sins. Solomon ruled for forty years and then died, but the Promised Son was to rule forever. Solomon was an adopted son of God, as all believers are, but Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God.

David purchased land, gathered materials, and hired workmen to build the temple God had told him not to build. Solomon oversaw the construction of that temple, and God accepted his gift. The temple followed the pattern of the Tabernacle that God had designed. Sacrifices continued to be offered in the temple, drawing the power to forgive sins from the future sacrifice of the Promised Son. Yet God’s people strayed away from the Lord; even Solomon built temples for other gods, the gods worshipped by his wives. The unfaithfulness of God’s people made a mockery of the sacrifices to atone for sin. Therefore, God raised the Babylonian army and allowed it to sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple.

Under the Persian government, God’s people were allowed to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. Some of those who saw the new temple wept because they remembered the splendor of Solomon’s temple. Through the prophet Haggai, God promised that the second temple would be more glorious than the first temple, because God himself would visit that temple. This promise was fulfilled when Jesus entered the temple–first as a baby, forty days old; then as a boy, twelve years old; then as a man in his thirties. Jesus taught in the temple. He even cleared the temple of merchants who were defiling the temple. When asked by what authority he cleared the temple, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19)–“But the Temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). The Word made flesh was a temple, because it was the way God chose to be present among his people.

The tabernacle was a picture of the Word made flesh, promising the presence of God among his people. Solomon’s temple and the second temple were also pictures of Jesus, the presence of God among his people. God had the Babylonians destroy the first temple, and he had the Romans destroy the second temple, as pictures of his Son suffering and dying on the cross to atone for the world’s sins. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the promise to pay for the sins of the world, temples and animal sacrifices are no longer needed.

The body of Jesus, which is the true temple of God, rose from the dead. Forty days later that body ascended into heaven to fill the universe. Jesus, “seated at the right hand of the Father,” is present everywhere. Yet he is present in a special way whenever his people gather in his name. “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). Since the Church is the body of Christ, it also is God’s Temple. The Church is the place where God’s people know that they are in the presence of God.

As God’s people, we need to be connected to God. God is everywhere, but as sinners in a sinful world we cannot always sense his presence. Therefore, Jesus promises to be present “where two or three gather in” his name (Matthew 18:20). One Christian alone is not a temple. Christians gathered to hear the Word of God and to receive his blessings are a temple. God reaches out to sinners from the Church. God cares for his people in the Church. The Good Shepherd provides for his flock in the Church. We are the body of Christ, diverse in many ways, yet functioning together to accomplish the will of our Head. As the body of Christ, we are his temple. We are the only temple God wants or needs in the world today. J.