I was in Rwanda a few years ago, and a group of us went hiking in the slums of Kigali with a woman named Pauline. Pauline spends her free time caring for people who are about to die of HIV/AIDS. She agreed to take us to visit one of her friends who had only hours to live. We hiked through this slum for what seemed like miles, and as we got farther in, the shacks became smaller and smaller until all we had to walk on were narrow trails with sewage crisscrossing in streams that ran beside, and sometimes under, the shacks.
Eventually we ended up in a dirt-floored, one-room shack about six-by-six feet. A woman was lying under so many blankets that all we could see was her mouth and eyes. Her name was Jacqueline. Pauline had become her friend and had been visiting her consistently for the past few months. As I knelt down beside her on the floor, I watched Pauline, standing in the corner, weeping. Her friend was going to die soon. What overwhelmed me wasn't the death or despair or poverty. What overwhelmed me was the compassion. In this dark place Pauline's love and compassion were simply...bigger. More. It is as if the smallest amount of light is infinitely more powerful than massive amounts of dark. The ground was holy.
I'm sure you have had similar experiences. In the strangest of settings, maybe with people you barely know, you become aware that the ground beneath your feet is holy. It is sacred. There's something else, something more, going on here.
I went to a funeral several years ago and walked into the lobby of the chapel and immediately thought I was the first one there. Then I realized I wasn't the first one; the husband of the woman who had died was there, standing over the open casket. I walked over to him as he stood over her body, put my arm around him, and didn't say anything. Just the two of us in this big open room, looking down at his wife's body. He just kept saying over and over, "She was such a good woman; she was such a good woman." And we stood there together for a while with my arm around his shoulder, and I listened to him repeat, "She was such a good woman." The ground was holy.
A young woman in our church gave birth last week to a two-pound baby who died the day after being born. My friend Matt went to the hospital to visit them. When he entered the room, he realized the baby was still there. And the couple was sitting in shock, stunned that this had happened and happened to them. Matt walked in, greeted the couple, and then took the baby in his arms and kissed it.
I wasn't even there, and I can feel the moment. The pain, the anguish, the sense that something else was going on in that room that we only get glimpses of from time to time.
Because it isn't just those beautiful moments in the midst of the everyday and mundane; it is also in the tragic and the gut-wrenching moments when we cannot escape the simple fact that there is way more going on around us than we realize.
Last year some friends asked me to be the pastor for their wedding ceremony. They had been together for a while and decided to make it official and throw a huge weekend party, and they invited me to be a part of it. They said they didn't want any Jesus or God or Bible or religion to be talked about. But they did want me to make it really spiritual. The bride said it in her own great way, "Rob, do that thing you do. Make it really profound and deep and spiritual!"
So we decided to meet the morning of the wedding to actually plan the ceremony. It was a stunningly beautiful day, and we met on a cliff overlooking a lake in the midst of a thick forest. The wind was blowing the tops of the trees way up above us, the sun was coming through in yellow-and-white beams, and at one point an eagle flew overhead. I kept waiting for someone to cue the orchestra.
Anyway, I asked my friends why they wanted to be married in such a natural, organic setting, since it was four hours from where we all live. They talked about the beauty of nature, its peacefulness, and the way they fell in love in this part of the state. Then the groom said something I will never forget: "Something holds this all together."
Something holds this all together.
So then I asked them if they thought it was a mistake that they had found each other. And they said, no, they believed they were meant to be together and it was no accident that they met and fell in love. I then asked them, "Do you think whatever it is that holds all this together is the same thing that has brought you two together?" They said yes. Same thing.
So I said that maybe what makes their relationship so meaningful to them is that it's a picture of something much bigger. The same force that brought them together holds the whole world together. I then asked, "So today, your wedding is about something far more significant than just the two of you becoming husband and wife, isn't it?"
They then said they would call this glue, this force, "God."
I tell you all this to point out that my friends already intuitively believe certain things about the universe and the way the world works. All I was doing was asking questions about things they already knew to be true.
I didn't have to convince them of anything. Now I could go on about the ceremony and the party afterward and the way it ended up being one of the most sacred things I have ever been a part of, but I want to leave you up on that cliff having that conversation.
"I don't follow Jesus because I think Christianity is the best religion"
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The Hebrew word for glory here is kavod, which means weight or significance.
The whole earth is full of the weight and significance of who God is. The prophets were deeply influenced by this understanding that the earth is drenched with the presence of God.
The writer David said, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." He later prayed, "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?"
According to the ancient Jewish worldview, God is not somewhere else. God is right here. It is God's world and God made it and God owns it and God is present everywhere in it. In the book of Genesis, a man named Jacob had a dream in which God spoke to him and reminded him of his destiny and purpose. When Jacob woke up, he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it."
God has been there all along, and Jacob is just beginning to realize it. He's waking up from physical sleep, but he is also waking up from spiritual sleep. I've heard people tell stories about something powerful that happened and then at the end of the story say, "And then God showed up!" As if God were somewhere else and then decided to intervene.
But God is always present. We're the ones who show up.
For the ancient Jew, the world is soaked in the presence of God.
The whole earth is full of the kavod of God.
For the writers of the Bible, this truth is everywhere. It's here. It's there.
It's all over.
And not only is truth everywhere, not only is the whole earth filled with the kavod of God, but the writer Paul makes a fascinating observation about people in his letter to the Romans. He says at one point, "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves." Gentiles is his word for people who don't follow God, and law is his word for the Scriptures. So he says that people who don't know anything about God are able to do the right thing on a regular basis. Without having any instructions from God or the Bible, these people are still able from time to time to live as God created us to live. For Paul, truth is available to everyone.
Truth is everywhere, and it is available to everyone.
But Paul takes it further, because for him truth is bigger than his religion. Notice what he says in the book of Titus. He is referring to the people who live on the island of Crete when he writes that even one of their own prophets has said, "`Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.' He has surely told the truth."
So Paul quotes one of the Cretan prophets and then affirms that this guy was right in what he said. "This testimony is true." What the prophet said was true, so Paul quotes him. For Paul, anybody is capable of speaking truth. Anybody, from any perspective, from any religion, from anywhere.
And these words from the book of Titus, the quote from a Cretan prophet, are in the Bible. So the Word of God contains the words of a prophet from Crete.
Paul affirms the truth wherever he finds it.
But he takes it further in the book of Acts. He is speaking at a place called Mars Hill (which would be a great name for a church) and trying to explain to a group of people who believe in hundreds of thousands of gods that there is really only one God who made everything and everybody. At one point he's talking about how God made us all, and he says to them, "As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring.'" He quotes their own poets. And their poets don't even believe in the God he's talking about. They were talking about some other god and how we are all the offspring of that god, and Paul takes their statement and makes it about his God. Amazing.
Paul doesn't just affirm the truth here; he claims it for himself. He doesn't care who said it or who they were even saying it about. What they said was true, and so he claims it as his own.
This affirming and claiming of truth wherever you find it is all through the writings of Paul. In 1 Corinthians, he tells his readers, "All things are yours,... and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God." He essentially says to them, "It all belongs to God, and Christ is of God, and you are of Christ, so...it's all yours."
If it is true, if it is beautiful, if it is honorable, if it is right, then claim it. Because it is from God. And you belong to God.
The philosopher Arthur Holmes is known for saying, "All truth is God's truth." It is such a great statement, because what other kind of truth could there be?
So as a Christian, I am free to claim the good, the true, the holy, wherever and whenever I find it. I live with the understanding that truth is bigger than any religion and the world is God's and everything in it...
I don't follow Jesus because I think Christianity is the best religion. I follow Jesus because he leads me into ultimate reality. He teaches me to live in tune with how reality is. When Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through me," he was saying that his way, his words, his life is our connection to how things truly are at the deepest levels of existence. For Jesus then, the point of religion is to help us connect with ultimate reality, God. I love the way Paul puts it in the book of Colossians: These religious acts and rituals are shadows of the reality. "The reality...is found in Christ."