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A thousand places

Imagine walking by a painting of Paris day by day, year by year, as it hangs on your wall. No matter the passing time the colors stay the same. The people don’t have birthdays. The seasons do not change. All you see is one timeless moment. Sometimes you pass by it, heavy with the weight of the world, and you imagine yourself walking right through the paint. You stroll carefree along the cobblestone streets, among the people with no faces or names.

On Wednesday, May 9, I walked into this hypothetical painting of Paris, my mental picture of Boston, and I won’t think of it the same way again. I walked through the narrow streets. I talked to a man named Timmy. I breathed the humid air. And I found Jesus there.

Now when I look at my picture of Boston I see him everywhere. He is telling the girl on the street that he knows her name. He’s the shoulder she rests on going home on the train. He is filling the hearts of his saints while they praise. He is holding their hands in the circles where they pray.

Worship was everywhere we went. From the North End at sunset to the Boston ballet. Church was wherever we met. From the alleys where we bowed our heads to the Sunday hotel services. Jesus was in a thousand places.

The Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you build me a temple as good as that?’ asks the LORD. ‘Could you build me such a resting place?’
(Acts 7:48-49)

We cannot build him a place great enough to dwell, yet in our hearts he builds a temple. ‘Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you?’(1 Cor. 6:19) He works not with silver or gold, but by his own imperishable blood. He labors in secret and silence, where thieves cannot steal, where enemies cannot break in. Those who believe will yet see. Without from within, he is building. He is building his church in Boston, and in our hearts he is building his home.

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It’s so natural to be caught up in ourselves at the expense of others that we barely realize it. It’s normal, and feels healthy. But if that were normal for Jesus, would anyone be saved? Would the bleeding woman who reached out for the edge of his robe ever have been noticed? Would the 12-year-old girl he raised to life soon after that have died? Probably, if Jesus were you or I…

If Jesus were like me, where would I be?

We have legitimate reasons to be preoccupied. We have goals to reach, friends to keep, deadlines to meet. But didn’t Jesus have plenty of good reasons to pass us by too? His greatest reason could have been the cross. Will people ever cost us that much? Yet we are busier than God.

‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.’ (Ezekiel 16:49)

When I think poor and needy I tend to think of the homeless people I pass on the streets of San Francisco, or the hungry children I see on TV. But is that the only place to find the poor and needy, or have I really had eyes to see? How often do I consider myself poor and needy and wish someone were there for me?

The poor and needy are everybody, whether physically or spiritually, whether we know it or not. There is only one who is not, and he is God. And he fills us up so we can be poured out, and he pours us out so we can be filled up. Half the blessing is to be filled, but to be poured out is to be fulfilled.

Our ministry is not at all confined to our role in church. We can be a stranger, a classmate, a co-worker, a friend, and we have a ministry. I like to think of ministry as administering care to a soul, like a nurse administers medicine to a body.

We all have good excuses to avoid the poor and needy, but we have much better reasons to care. To go in to church and then go out as the church. To pray for eyes to see, to have a heart that feels, to reach with hands that heal. To be the flesh and blood of Jesus, the same way he has been for us.

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Hotel room

If you ask someone to describe worldliness, they would probably use words like materialism, immoral sex, misused power, fame, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, swearing… But there is a cleaner kind of worldliness that most people see as normal and good. It seems that what it means to be human is to live to be accepted by the popular, partnered with the powerful, honored by the crowd. What we earn, we own. We feel no real obligation to serve the less fortunate, or anyone other than ourselves. We consider ourselves best suited to define and provide what is good for us. We are as concerned about our reputation as we are our character, and care more for happiness than holiness. We seek God as deep as our self-interest. We serve mostly when we can gain in return. We love until we’re not happy anymore.

Putting yourself first, living comfortably, and following your heart is considered sanity. To be selfish seems to be healthy.

Our old nature is so natural to us that I wonder how many will spend their lives thinking it’s the only way to live. We want to be in the world, not of the world, while failing to realize that the world is inside of us as much as it is outside of us. We are the world.

We have been the world, but we are called to be the church. What we thought was home is only a hotel room. What we thought was our self is merely our flesh. What it means to be human is far more glorious than what it has seemed.

We find ourselves in a new culture that is completely counter to our own. We find in ourselves an old culture that is completely contrary to heaven. We must be turned inside out and upside down. We must learn to live all over again – and not only learn like an infant, but we must unlearn how we’ve been human. We’ve had it backwards. We must backtrack to move forward, to become new creatures with new natures in a new culture.

Our new nature is as foreign to us as an alien. Christ in us is an entirely new concept. If we get him in theory, we betray him in practice. We have too many natural bad habits. They’re so natural, they’re normal. And normal is comfortable. And comfortable feels good. And good feels right. And right is how we live our lives.

But what if we are wrong? What if all that feels natural to us is unnatural to God? What if we deem wise what God calls foolish? What if what we feel and what is real are opposites?

Despite how we feel, we are not at the center of ourselves. The truest thing about us is not about us at all.

Our way of life is to live for ourselves, yet the essence of death is self-centeredness. Our concept of freedom is to serve ourselves, but that is our greatest bondage. We are our own prison. Hell is what happens when we are left to ourselves. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

The life of Christ in us is the death of our old self, our selfishness, our worldliness. We experience an identity crisis. We feel dry and deprived. Torn and confused. Opposed and broken. Exposed. Helpless. Desperate. Though it feels like death, what we feel and what is real are opposites. Dying is the only way we can learn how to live.

The life of Christ in us is not merely death, but birth. The breath of our new self, of selflessness, of godliness. We are learning a new language, a new way to think, a new way to exist. This great reversal is making the opposites natural. We will count it wisdom when we once thought it foolish to let God define and provide what is good. It will be habit to serve, to seek to honor and not to be honored, to put others first. It will be natural to love people that nobody likes, to revolve around something other than ourselves, to find happiness in holiness. We find the new as we forsake the old.

We have not yet seen who we will be, who we are becoming from glory to glory. Pound by pound, our hearts are being broken for more than ourselves, aching for something else. Waking to greater purpose, higher delight, deeper insight. We’ve glimpsed a glory more valuable than our own, a beauty better than our reflection, a Being most worthy of our affection. We’ve touched a place far greater than our castle in the sand, a kingdom that will forever stand.

We’ve acknowledged truth too wonderful to comprehend, that we could be part of heaven. We were not made to be the world, but to be the church. And like the world it exists as much inside of us as it does outside of us. The church is you and me. A body with hands and feet. A language that we can speak. A country where we are free. An eternal family.

We are not merely existing anymore. We have found something worth living for. As we go from dreaming to being, we find reality to exceed our hopes and dreams. We find God as deep and real as our needs implied. We realize like C. S. Lewis that we’ve been far too easily pleased. That our happiest moments are when we forget our old selves and get lost in everything else. Things more precious. Things more glorious. Jesus. A new world. A new culture. A new people. A new home, and not just a hotel room.

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