Trails of Grace: Mrs. Brown

I’d say I was probably a pretty typical (dumb) boy growing up—I didn’t really think things through, usually just acting hyper and stupid and irresponsible. At the same time, I seem to recall being fairly well liked by most of my teachers and was probably given more latitude than was good for my soul.

Enter fifth grade and my social studies class. We had a rather large assignment where we supposed to prepare a presentation for one of the states. We were given several weeks to prepare this, with the understanding that the project was a large portion of our grade. When the time to start the presentations came, I watched other students give their presentations, completed with research and frequently with poster boards and the such.

Well, my family didn’t own any encyclopedias at home. And this was obviously before the days of the interwebs. So, in some part of my ten-year-old brain, that struck me as an insurmountable barrier. Thus, when my turn came, Mrs. Brown called on me to give my presentation, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: I didn’t do it.
Mrs. Brown (after a very long pause): Why not??
Me: Because we don’t own any encyclopedias.
Mrs. Brown: Why didn’t you just go to the library??
Me: Oh. I didn’t think of that.
Mrs. Brown: Well, I’m going to give you a zero for this assignment since you didn’t complete it by your due date.

I say this was part of God’s grace to me because it was the first time I remember really ever having to take responsibility for a dumb decision I made. What’s still funny to me is that I really thought it was okay that I didn’t do the assignment (which, consequently, really does help me in parenting two boys who are both around that age right now!). Regardless of how dumb tween boys are, this was so important to me because Mrs. Brown didn’t make excuses for me or extend my deadline. I was given an assignment with a deadline, and when I missed it, there was no, “aw, shucks, Billy, that’s okay”—there was simply the consequence of not doing the work on my side to overcome any obstacles.

So, I give thanks to God for Mrs. Brown, who taught me that I have a responsibility not only to meet expectations, but also that many of my incredibly reasonable excuses were really just lame. It stung and I deserved it and (as you can tell) I never forgot it.

Trails of Grace

Here recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about the different people that God has weaved into the tapestry of my life that have shaped me in significant ways. These folks have left trails of grace in my own story (and I suppose I’ve done the same for others, though I wouldn’t really ever know methinks). And pondering the impact these people have had has made me realize a few things.

First, I tend not to think much about my past and the way that God has shown me grace. I tend to be very forward-oriented, much to the neglect of seeing the many acts of kindness and mercy God has shown me in the past. Second, I’ve not really ever expressed me gratefulness to many of these people. I’d really like to change that. Third, I’m incredibly prideful and tend to think of myself in terms of all I’ve accomplished on my own, as if I don’t stand on the shoulders of the many people who have invested in me. Giving credit to the folks who have loved me over the years will hopefully humble my big-headed self-aggrandizement.

So, in that light, I’m starting to write several posts that will detail the trails of grace through the people God has placed in my life. Some have been believers, some haven’t–but all of them have helped build me and were gifts from the Father. I look forward to doing something very different for me, especially in writing: reminiscing and giving thanks.

Being the Church

“Go Be the Church”

I saw that on Instagram on a friend’s shirt. Before I start, let me give the quick caveat that I know what they mean and what they’re going for. And for the most part, I dig it. So kudos to my friend and his church for wanting to live out the realities of the redeemed life as a real thing and stop treating church like a place.

Having said that…

I wonder if this “being” language just adds a layer of confusion to a term that’s already pretty jacked up.

The word translated in most New Testament versions as “church” is the Greek word ekklesia. Now some who know more about Greek might want to try and parse the word ekklesia into its components: ek– as “out” and –klesia as a derivative of “called ones”, leading to the say that the church is the “called out ones”. In the first place, breaking a word into its component parts just doesn’t always work: just try it with “butterfly” …

But secondly, this approach ignores the way the word is used in New Testament times. When we look at first century usage broadly and the core usage of the term ekklesia in the NT, ekklesia generally just means assembly or gathering. There are usages that show how the apostles took the term and began to use it as a way to refer to all those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, regardless of whether they can actually physically gather or not. But even then, I think the term points forward to the future reality of the whole church gathered before the throne and crying out, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!” Regardless, the most common usage for ekklesia is the gathering.

Which is to say that “church” is an ordinary word for people who get together for a purpose.

We, as individuals, are part of that church. We’re either part of the church which Christ “loved…and gave himself up for her (it)” (Eph 5:25) or we’re part of the church that meets somewhere, like at Priscilla and Aquila’s house (Rom 16:4-5) or at Nympha’s house (Col 4:15) or Apphia and Archippus’ house (Philemon 2). In the first case, you’re part of the church if Jesus died for you. To say it differently, if you believe in Jesus, you’re part of the church (universal, if you prefer) whether you really know it or want it or whatever. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it or what you do: you are part of the church because Jesus bought you by his blood. In the second case, you’re part of the church if you do what the church, by definition, does: you gather with them (the local church, in some traditions).

In either case, I don’t think that’s what “go be the church” was intended when it was printed on a t-shirt. And yes, I know this is largely a game of semantics—and I really despise the whole semantics game. But what concerns me is that in calling a building a “church” and saying things like “it’s time to go to church”, we’ve completely killed the NT usage of the word. But in an effort to recover the term and make better use of it, we make it mean something else which also isn’t what the NT meant and still end up killing the term. How can you “be” an assembly of people?

Either way, we’re missing the what the apostles meant when they used the word ekklesia (or “church”). We keep warping the word so that when we go back to read our source documents in the Scriptures, we still keep reading the term and making it into something else entirely. In the larger sense of the word, you are part of the church because Jesus has you and no one can snatch you from his hand. In the narrower sense, you’re part of the church through gathering.

Where this long line of reasoning leads me to is a conclusion I really never thought I’d come to since abandoning the institutionalized, Americanized, popularized church: gathering is of vital importance. And at the core, it’s what bothers me about this “go be the church” business. Because I presume the meaning there is that we should go out and be lights to the community, that we should show the love of Jesus everywhere, that we should find avenues of fellowship outside of scheduled gathering times. And all of these things are so true—we should be compelled by the love of Christ to do these things.

But they are not remotely the same thing as “being” the church. If we want to “be” the church, we have to gather. Because church = gathering. Being active in our neighborhoods and circles, serving others and being a light is just being a disciple. Being a church requires gathering together.

The implications of this are more than just “go to church every week” (though there’s a whole list of implications of that phrase, too!) nor does it have anything to do with (corporate) worship. I’m really trying to get at how modern usage of “church” is something we read backwards into the New Testament all the time. And our modern translations don’t help much either. The church is not a building or a state of being, but actual souls redeemed and joined together by the blood of Jesus. The church is a community, a family, that exists in unity through Jesus. And there is a vital, physical connection that can’t be ignored.