Gleanings from the Bible: Ecclesiastes, Emptiness and the State of the Church.

We know that Ecclesiastes emphasises the emptiness of life without God, but does this emptiness also extend into the lives of those who do believe in God and even take the name Christian? Does it extend further to our church practices and worship? While claiming to follow Jesus Christ, do we in fact live as though he doesn’t exist? Do we go through the motions but not experience anything akin to the sort of close relationships we have with other people?

We are familiar enough with the idea that a Christian, who is not practising the basics of the faith, tends to drift away from God and is unlikely to experience much spiritually. But do we really know what we are talking about when we use words like “spiritual” and “spirituality”?*

Some Christians are suspicious of the words, “experience” and “spiritual.” They always seems so subjective, undefined and unreliable. Couldn’t they merely be the product of emotional manipulation, whether deliberate or not? Are they not just the feelings of fear, or guilt, or ecstasy, generated by chemical combinations responding to the immediate environment? Can we then dismiss spiritual experience and the worship that goes with it as meaningless? Well yes and no. Every feeling, whether we label it chemical, psychological or spiritual, is experienced through our bodies and more particularly, our brains. But that does not make experience meaningless. It simply means that that is how human beings function.

I suspect that people generally are actually starved of experience while being drowned by it. For example, we have abundant access to dramatic photographs, from all over the globe, sometimes oversaturated and bursting with exaggerated life. On social media we flip through them, wanting to experience them all, thinking, “Wow!” at every swipe, yet never pausing to take them in at any depth. We exist as multiple generations, who have been raised on the likes of Sesame Street, fast paced, switching from sketch to sketch, and now with all the attention span of a demented monkey. We don’t want to miss a thing! We want to see what is happening everywhere and we want to see it now!

And yet it often seems so superficial. Experience for experience sake. Meaningless. A chasing after wind.

It is almost inevitable that this carries over into spiritual life and worship. We want to experience God but some of us don’t experience anything very much. Some seem afraid of the word, “experience” and others have found that their former spiritual experiences no longer give the buzz they once did. Churches have tried new ideas, embraced technology and ramped up the music but are they offering anything that can’t be readily found outside its doors?

And still the general populace still appears to crave spirituality. An experience beyond the mundane cycle of life, which the excesses of modern life do not provide. I’ve noticed the public response to disaster and death; the candles and vigils, the placing of wreaths, the televising of funerals, the growing interest in Anzac Day in Australia. As the writer of Ecclesiastes states,   he has also set eternity in the human heart (3:11).

I think that a great problem is, that while Christian and non-Christian alike desire spiritual experience, there is often a low expectation that it will be found in church. Non-Christian, unchurched people, have absolutely no expectation that church can provide anything meaningful. Ritualists may find that the theatrical forms of worship can no longer compete with the costume dramas and special effects of Hollywood. Young people see the liturgies as repetitious and lifeless. Conservative Evangelicals, are sometimes so wary of spiritual excess that anything emotional is either suppressed or ignored. Charismatic denominations discover that the predictability of mainline churches, from which they once fled, has caught them up in formats that no longer provide anything novel. And I wonder if all of this is behind the move away from traditional beliefs towards Progressive Christianity, whose adherents seem to feel that Christianity has failed and now seek  “God” through new avenues. Effectively a new faith only tangentially connected to its roots. Some churches and associated organisations are admired for their fine social conscience and welfare work, but even that doesn’t seem to be attracting new members to the ranks.

Am I being over critical? Have I caught the Negative-Ecclesiastes-Virus? In the western world, have our Christian lives and worship really become superficial and devoid of direction? Is there a solution?

Let me express a few thoughts, while admitting that I can be as much a part of the problem as anyone else. These are not exhaustive…

The first has to do with expectations. Our society has become so sceptical and cynical that we find that we do not expect God to act in any special way. This affects the frame of mind in which we come to worship. It affects our prayer life and ultimately it affects our enthusiasm.

A second has to do with relationship. If we only relate to God through set pieces, words and sacraments, then it can be like a marriage that never progresses past the marriage preparation course and the wedding ceremony. This includes people who study doctrine and theology, but fail to apply it in a life-transforming way. Where study replaces relationship.

A third has to do with fear. The fear, not just of change, but of  being changed. A fear of losing control over one’s life and emotions.

A fourth has to do with disappointment. The accumulated experience of nothing very much happening, or happening fast enough, which takes us back to low expectations.

A fifth has to do with perseverance. Our society has trained us to expect everything immediately, and we become bored easily. We readily give up, especially when it comes to talking to God.

I want to acknowledge now that we each have different personalities, which are attracted by different forms of worship, so what I am expressing here are the things would attract me to a church or fellowship. But I do suspect that they might be attractive to others.

There are the regular, vitally important things like finding a welcome and friendship and having a useful part to play in the fellowship. If I am attending a Christian Church I expect orthodox Christian beliefs drawn from the Bible and expressed in the Creeds, otherwise it ceases to be Christian at its core. I also expect the gospel to be proclaimed. By which I mean, affirming that Jesus is the Messiah, who died so that we may be forgiven, and who rose from the dead to assure us of life beyond the grave. By submitting to Jesus as Lord, and receiving his Spirit we are born into God’s (spiritual) family and a spiritual transformation begins within us, gradually changing us to be more and more in character like Jesus Christ. This life-changing experience is fundamental to all that follows. It is the unique and vital thing that nothing else in society offers. But from what I hear such proclamation with the opportunity for people to respond in a faith commitment is too often absent from many churches. Such churches have ceased to offer anything meaningful. The relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and the infilling of the Spirit, then become the motivation for right living and serving our fellow human beings.

The relationship with God is nurtured through reading the Scriptures, prayer and joining others in worship. The obvious things which are the bread and butter for growing Christians, known by so many, but practised by relatively few! Prayer that is not fed by meditating on God’s Word to us is like a love, which has no guidelines as to what it is that truly benefits the object of that love. And reading the Scriptures, without prayer mingled with meditation, is like reading the marriage guidance book and never speaking to your spouse. This is the personal foundation, which we then bring to corporate worship.

I am not going to tackle the many aspects of worship here but I want to suggest that churches not be afraid to talk about the Holy Spirit and encourage their members to pray that they be filled with the Spirit each day. Have a least one expression of worship in the week, which is unpredictable and freer in form and where the work and gifts of the Spirit can be discussed. Give opportunity for prayers for healing (of all sorts) with the testimonies of those who have experienced God at work. Generate the realistic expectation that God will make a difference to people’s lives. Pray together for specific people and things and keep a record to encourage further prayer. Pray that God will control what happens as you meet together and then do not be afraid if something unusual occurs.

I think that people are bypassing church because they perceive that nothing happens there. Of course we cannot and should not be manufacturing spiritual experience artificially. Nor should we forget Jesus’ observation, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We do have to beware of becoming dependent on dramatic experience and the obviously miraculous.

However I am still much inspired by the stories of revival both from the past and as it is currently happening in other parts of the world (if rarely reported). Revival of worship, the experience of God’s power, and the influx of people into his Kingdom, come through the perseverance of prayer. Experience seems to indicate that the starting point is people – sometimes just a few – motivated by the Spirit, gathering regularly, expectantly and persistently to ask God to pour out his Spirit on his people.

In the meantime, I’d be happy to settle for seeing people grow in their faith. For hearing the person who said, “That’s just me. I’ll never be any different,” saying years later, “I’m enjoying my quiet time with God each morning. I don’t lose my temper now like I used to. I am more positive about life. I’ve patched up my relationship with my neighbour/friend/relative. I believe I’m seeing the fruit of God’s Spirit working in my life!”

And perhaps that’s where it starts, at a personal level, with your everyday relationships. Your non-Christian neighbour may, in the deepest recesses of her heart, desire spiritual experience and some purpose and significance in life, but won’t venture into the alien world and language of the local church. But she may notice the way you have changed and venture to ask, “What do you believe?” or share her own woes, presenting you with the opportunity to expectantly pray with her and watch what God does! The question is, “Will you know what to say?” That is an area of training that a growing church will want to engage in.

A Christ-filled life, even an imperfect one, is a stepping stone for others to seek and find Jesus Christ. It is the way to experience the reality of God from day to day. To push back the negativity of a meaningless cycle of life and to touch that eternity (if only partially) that God has placed in our hearts.

So don’t give up. God is powerfully at work in the world at large. Invite him, each day,  to work in your life and that of your fellowship… and see what happens!

*  [I take “spirituality” to mean those practices and experiences associated with knowing God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit (as opposed to just knowing about them). You may have a better definition.]

Gleanings from the Bible: Leviticus

Leviticus isn’t a book that most people rush to read first. I have rarely heard it preached because I think many people believe it to be irrelevant. So I came to it again expecting to have a struggle concentrating. In fact, on the contrary I found it quite fascinating and enlightening.

For a start, its main theme is holiness, which isn’t a popular subject these days but is most certainly a great challenge – one to sort out the men from the boys and the women from the girls! Much of it has ritual and symbolic value which was to constantly remind Israel, in every part of their daily lives, of God’s holiness and their holiness as a nation. It was particularly concerned with worship, the way in which Israel could relate to God through the Levitical priesthood.

Here, holiness embraces various related concepts. God is holy because he is righteous, pure, just separate from and above the “gods” of the other nations, and so on. Israel is holy because she has been chosen by God as his own people for the special purpose of witnessing to the world about him and being a blessing to others (11:44-45). Holiness is reflected in what might be termed normal and by “normal” I mean, “as God intended things to be”. Thus everything associated with worship had to be as perfect as possible, whether the sacrifices or the priests who carried them out. In the text it gives rise to the expressions “clean” and “unclean”.   This “separating out” of a holy people, Israel, and the selection of whole and perfect things becomes an expression of God’s Kingdom, and it is ratified through the Covenant (with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then at Sinai with the giving of the Ten Commandments).

So the Law is instituted to keep this special relationship in focus by ritual and by behaviour – by ceremonial and by moral law.

Despite its unpopularity  I have come across references to Leviticus more recently in the debates by atheists and with relation to homosexuality. The first lampoon the book because of its draconian punishments and incomprehensible instructions (in the sense that they find it hard to discover the reasoning behind many of them). With regard to the expressions of homosexuality, Levitical proof texts have been used by those both for and against its normalisation.

Draconian laws?

I have mentioned this topic already. Israel is at a fragile time in her formation and there is a great deal at stake. She is surrounded by nations whose religious practices were absolutely abhorrent. They were hard times and the discipline reflected that.

I am reminded of an occasion in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 19) where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not the way from the beginning.” Jesus gets to the purpose of the law and promotes the next step.

Incomprehensible laws?

It takes some reading to understand the relevance of some of the laws, even as they applied back then. This is where it’s important to distinguish between those that had ceremonial or ritual significance and those that affected God and human relationships. The fact that they are often written up side by side shouldn’t make the distinction too difficult. For example chapter 19 gives a list of various laws. Respecting father and mother relates to stable families. Do not steal, lie and deceive establishes a stable society, as do respecting the disabled and elderly, loving one’s neighbour and practising justice and honesty. “Do not wear clothing of two kinds of material” obviously has to do with a symbolic expression of purity, to remind the wearer that he or she is set aside for one God – Yahweh! Australia has State of Origin rugby matches between Queensland (maroon) and New South Wales (blue). The supporters show who they belong to by wearing the colours of one or the other – but not both!

Laws against homosexuality?

There is no doubt that chapter 18:22 states, “do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman.” One argument goes that this is not relevant because other laws such as the clothes woven of two types of material are no longer directly binding, and they all come as a package – take it or leave it. But it should be noted that the law about homosexuality is part of a chapter that also deals with incest, bestiality and child sacrifice and, as I have already mentioned, I believe that we can discriminate between a ritual and a moral law.

On the other hand it is not quite the knockdown argument against all homosexuality that some Christians claim it to be. In the first instance it addresses homosexual practice, not the condition of being homosexual. But also many argue that what is on view here is homosexual excess, temple prostitution and the like, especially with reference to 18:24 where the debased practices of the nations are on view.

There are other arguments associated with these verses and indeed other verses in the Bible which deal with this extensive subject and there is not space to deal with them properly here.

What’s Good about Leviticus?      

Where do you start? Chapter 19 (already mentioned) is full of good and relevant commandments. But here’s another: “Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner”

“Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” (24:17-22 – it included the foreigner) sounds as if it’s advocating revenge but actually, for that time, limited it, in a world where vengeance usually escalated out of control. However Jesus would later refine it further.

Allowing the land to rest (25) was to ensure that soil could regenerate and/or as reminder of the Sabbath principle, while the Year of Jubilee meant that families would not be permanently dispossessed.

In summary

It has been said that the direct relevance of Old Testament laws for Christians is determined by whether they are reaffirmed in the New Testament.  However the principles behind the ritual laws do still apply. Christians are still called to be a holy people in the sense that we are to live for God’s Kingdom and reflect the moral character of God in what we say and do. These are not a once-on-Sunday phenomenon but everyday expressions in the way we live and relate to God and to others.