One of the seminal literary figures of the 20th century was T. S. Eliot. Born in 1888 he studied at Harvard and Oxford and eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature early in his career. But he was an unfulfilled soul who saw the vanity of contemporary life. His search for meaning led him through Hinduism and Buddhism, and finally to Christianity. In 1927 he converted to Christianity. In the same year he penned a poem entitled “The Journey of the Magi” which came to be regarded as autobiographical of Eliot himself. In it he described the search of the Magi for the Christ child as seen and narrated through the eyes of one of the Magi.
The Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The snow was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot has used the story of the Magi to make a point – how difficult and painful it is to be confronted with a radical change of paradigms. A change of paradigm often, if not usually, feels like death – our death, because we hold to the old paradigm so tenaciously. Dying to self and our traditional ways of doing things (what I am referring to here as “paradigms”) is a painful process, which most people spend their lives trying to avoid.
Reflecting on Eliot’s poem this Christmas season, I found myself thinking about how the various groups of people involved in the Christmas story responded to the radical change of paradigm which confronted them in the birth of Christ. I hope my thoughts and reflections will stimulate you to think about how we in the house church (or simple church, or whatever moniker you are operating under) movement are understanding and responding to the dramatic shift in spiritual paradigms which is taking place today. The nativity stories are found in Matthew 2:1-12 (the Magi), and Luke 2:1-20 (the shepherds & angels). For the sake of space I’ll let you read them on your own. I want to talk briefly about those five groups of people who were involved.
The Magi – Often referred to as “wise men” or “kings” in Christmas tradition, the Magi were, in fact, an hereditary Zoroastrian priesthood, often wielding great religious and political power in the Median, Babylonian, Persian and Parthian empires (right up to the time of Christ). During Israel’s Babylonian captivity Daniel, as a reward for services rendered and in recognition of his profound spiritual gifts, was promoted by the King to the position of Chief of the Magi. As such, Daniel was in a unique position to impart to the magi the prophecies of a coming Messiah (which they remembered, passed on and studied for the next 500 years). But as D.W. Jayne points out, the visit of the magi wasn’t simply a courtesy call from old friends. In the world of the first century the Magi functioned in both a priestly and a governmental role. The early church father Tertullian’s description of them as “wellnigh kings” (fere reges) is close to the truth. They were, in the words of Jayne, “a group of Persian-Parthian king makers.” Jayne goes on to describe how their visit might have been perceived: “In Jerusalem the sudden appearance of the Magi, probably traveling in force with all imaginable oriental pomp, and accompanied by adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem, as is recorded by Matthew. It would seem as if these Magi were attempting to perpetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies. Their request of Herod regarding him who “has been born king of the Jews” was a calculated insult to him who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.” These Magi, strangers to the Kingdom of God yet spiritually perceptive, saw the signs better than anyone else and somehow understood that a profound change of paradigms was underway. Although their understanding was somewhat flawed due to reasons unique to their own situations, they took the time and the considerable risk of traveling great distances to confirm what they already suspected – that a sign in the heavens signaled the fulfillment of great prophecies and portended profound changes here on earth. The paradigms of this world were about to change. The magi understood. Do we?
The Political Establishment – The story of the Magi leads to the story of the existing political/power structure as embodied in Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great. We can safely say that Caesar Augustus (real name Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar) had no idea that a simple decree to enumerate his empire (i.e., probably to prepare accurate tax rolls) would set the stage for the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The heathen rage and the princes of men devise a vain thing, but God uses the wrath of men to praise Him, simply because He so seldom gets their active cooperation. Caesar was clueless as to God’s dealings (in other words, situation unchanged in 2000 years), although Augustus probably eventually received reports of the Magi and their visit to Jerusalem. What Augustus Caesar could not know (although the Magi probably suspected) was that among the many prophecies being fulfilled that Christmas night was one which declared that the kingdoms of this world would one day become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ (see Daniel 2:31-45).
The paradigms of this world had profoundly changed due not to events in the halls of power but due to events in a stable, and Caesar Augustus was clueless, reminding us once again that profound change seldom originates in the seats of political power. When the powers-that-be finally do become aware of a profound change of paradigms they resist it, even violently, just as Herod the Great did. Herod the Great was many things, but a naive political fool was not one of them. His 35+ year rule over the Jews of Judea was coming to an end. He would be dead in a few short years. His hold on power was slipping and the visit of the Magi confirmed what he already feared – that his paradigm of power was being challenged. The paradigm was indeed changing, beyond Herod’s ability to resist or stop it, but he was still willing to extract a terrible price from those around him in a vain attempt to maintain what could not be maintained. In that respect, was Herod all that much different from us? He fought and resisted what God was doing because it threatened everything he had spent his life to build and achieve. Don’t we do the same?
The Religious Establishment – Like the Magi, for some 500 years the religious establishment of Israel had known and studied the prophecies of a coming Messiah. But during those same intervening years they had also become experts in answering obscure religious questions and turning the 613 requirements of the Law into more than 5,000 religious requirements which held the people of God in practical bondage. They had all the right answers to all the wrong questions. In addition, the Pharisees who controlled the synagogues and the Sadducees who controlled the temple & the governing Sanhedrin, along with the scribes who served both, had made their accommodation with the prevailing power of Rome. The prevailing religious establishment was in no mood for anything that might upset their carefully crafted status quo. The result was spiritual stagnation, religious legalism and blindness even to new stars in the sky announcing the messiah’s birth. When the Magi arrived looking for a king, Herod gathered together the religious establishment and “began to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born.” They had an immediate answer: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet.” They, too, had probably seen the new star in the sky. They, too, like all Jerusalem, had probably learned of the visit of the Magi searching for a new-born king. But despite knowing all the correct religious answers, they lacked the passion, the curiosity or the spiritual integrity to make the short 5-mile journey to nearby Bethlehem to discover if “The Desire of Ages” had indeed finally arrived. Is our religious establishment (ourselves included) much different today? Profound, God-breathed changes in our spiritual paradigms are underway. And yet, isn’t much, if not most, of the church today bogged down in giving warmed over answers to questions which few in our post-Christian post Modern culture are even asking? And are we in the house church movement doing anything substantially different than the religious establishment around us, other than changing our meeting place and taking over the local Starbucks?
The Shepherds – Throughout Scripture God has a fascinating love for shepherds. Many notable biblical saints were shepherds. The children of Israel were shepherds in the land of Goshen. Moses was a shepherd in the land of Midian. David was a shepherd, as was the prophet Amos. And it is the image of the good shepherd which Jesus used to describe himself in John 10:11 & 14. God seems to be partial toward shepherds. But as well as being a biblical and honorable occupation, it is also a dirty one. It was, for the most part, rugged outdoors work. Shepherds lived with their sheep 24/7. And before long they began to smell like their sheep. For reasons both practical and snobbish, this made them “social outcasts” to be numbered among “the least of these”. There are many aspects of God’s economy and dealings which I don’t understand (that’s an understatement). For example, why didn’t the angels appear to Caesar or Herod? Why didn’t they appear to the religious leaders? That would have been interesting since the Pharisees believed in angels but the Sadducees did not (would such a visitation have ended their intra-mural theological rivalry or have simply fed the fire of controversy? Hmmm). Why shepherds? Perhaps it was because God wanted to ignite a spiritual fire in the minds of ordinary men – the least of these – and ignite a revolution, a spiritual wildfire. He didn’t particularly want to bless either religious or political institutions, which often pride themselves in their ability to put out wildfires, lest they “get out of control” and threaten existing structures & paradigms. Religious leaders (and their secular counterparts) often walk in a sense of “entitlement” which says “God owes us an epiphany, after all, we’re leaders”. Yet for some reason God seems to have a heart for the least among us who walk in no such sense of entitlement. Interesting that the Shepherds did not disappoint. They can be counted among the few who had the personal curiosity and spiritual integrity to leave their comfort zones and make the trip into Bethlehem to actually see what God was doing. And for their efforts they received the blessing: “And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.”
Joseph & Mary – It’s difficult to think or write any new ideas concerning these two ordinary people (essentially a carpenter and a peasant girl) called upon by the God of their fathers through angelic messengers to play a role in this divine drama that the most learned religious leader would have found impossible. Nothing in their religious background could have prepared them for what God now called upon them to do. Could the Pharisaical Judaism of the Synagogues prepare Mary to willingly and joyously accept the role of an unwed-mother-to-be in a culture where such behaviour was punishable by the religious establishment with death by stoning? Or could it prepare Joseph for his divine call to obedience in marrying Mary and embracing a lifetime of questions, rumors and enuendos regarding Mary’s faithfulness or Jesus’ legitimacy? It is safe to say that the comfortable religious paradigm in which they, their friends and their families had spent their lives thus far was now being shaken to its very foundation as they were now visited by angels and commanded by God to take steps of faith and obedience outside of any religious “box” they had ever known. The shaking of our religious paradigms today is in small what theirs must have been in large. God is once again calling His people out of their comfortable religious boxes. Are you prepared to respond in faith and obedience, knowing that if you do so your world will profoundly change and that you will probably never be able to go back to what you knew before. Changing paradigms have a way of doing that to us.
The Inn Keeper – One of my first jobs after seminary when Gale & I moved to Spokane was at a local airport hotel. Yep, I was an “inn keeper.” Well, actually, I was a desk clerk on the 3-to-11 pm shift. Late one November evening an elderly gentleman came to the desk looking somewhat disheveled and asking for a room. He explained to me that he had no money or credit cards, but did have a “Money Market Account” draft book and asked if we could accept that in payment (our general policy was no, because such accounts at that time were unreliable). He told me that he had just had eye surgery (one of his eyes was bandaged) and was to catch flight to go and be with his family for the holidays the following day. The rest of the staff urged me to say no – bad risk. But, as the manager on duty at the time, I decided in favor of taking a risk and giving him a room. It was just the right thing to do, I felt. I got him settled in his room, my shift ended and I went home. The next morning I received an early morning phone call from the hotel staff announcing (even celebrating) that the bookkeeper had called the bank and the check was good. Word of my risky good deed had spread. When I went to work later that day I was gently chided by the general manager (a good fellow) for placing the hotel at risk, but the tone of his voice and the expression on his face told me we had done the right thing. I have occasionally thought of that elderly gentleman over the years, even musing as to whether he was an angel unaware (with a bank account?!) who had paid us a visit and tested all of our hearts. In the Gospel account, Luke simply tells us that Mary “gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” We should neither vilify nor idolize the inn keeper (or inn keepers) who turned Joseph and Mary away. They weren’t heartless or cruel people. They were probably just a family business run by ordinary people trying to earn a living, and they were full to capacity (even overflowing) for the evening. How could they know that God Himself was homeless that night at their door, that Angels stood ready to proclaim a birth, that Magi from the east would soon be arriving in search of a King and that political and religious paradigms would be forever changed by events that would now take place in a cattle stall within earshot of a baby’s cry. What a night to be an inn keeper and to have no room! Allow me to use this story to stretch the boundaries of your paradigm. The message of the house church movement is similar and profound. God wants to visit your house. Are you prepared to have your paradigm radically changed? Are you ready to invite Him in?
Conclusion & Personal Application
Where are you in this season of significant paradigm shift in God’s dealings in and through His church today? Do you see a reflection of yourself in the mirror of the five groups of people who participated in the Christmas drama? I would dare to say that, in the midst of this present shaking of existing religious paradigms, there are many believers who feel somewhat like the Magi of T.S. Eliot’s poem:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
If you are one of those who are “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” then allow me to make a suggestion during this Christmas season. Take some time to get alone and stand as an involved observer at the manger of Christ. Consider the participants in this divine drama as it unfolds around you. And ask yourself some simple questions. If I had been at the stable that Christmas night, what would my response have been to the paradigm change unfolding before me? How is my paradigm being shaken, challenged and changed today by God’s unfolding plan for the Ages. And how is my response different from (and hopefully better than) the responses of those around me?
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:10-14)
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In my newsletter for June 25 of this year (entitled “Shore Leave”) I gave a list of eleven “basic convictions concerning not just organic (house) church, but concerning our calling and priorities in the Kingdom of God.” Number eight (8) on that list was: “The importance of ministry to the marginalized as embodied in our call to serve ‘the least of these.’” In this letter I want to expand on this “basic conviction,” share some personal perspective concerning organic house church, and suggest a way forward.
As someone who has been involved in organic church over the past 15+ years, I can’t help but notice that things have changed. This is an observation, NOT a criticism. Change is a reality of life, and we have to adjust. How we adjust eventually determines our usefulness in God’s Kingdom and for His purposes. Personally, I have watched people I love and respect and have “journeyed” with fail to adjust to changing spiritual seasons and fall by the wayside. Perhaps Arthur Wallis summed it up best when he declared, “If you would make the greatest success of your life, try to discover what God is doing in your time, and fling yourself into the accomplishment of His will and purpose.” It is a brilliant observation that challenges me on several levels. As an amateur historian of spiritual awakenings, I must continually remind myself that the “next thing” God does by way of awakening and revival will not simply be a repeat of the last thing God did. God always repeats Himself, but never in the same way twice. My challenge (and yours) is to escape my mental boxes of familiarity and expectations and ask the question, “What is God doing in my time that I’m not yet seeing? Or, am I seeing it, but am unwilling to embrace it?” Asking the right question is frequently the precursor to arriving at the correct answer.
When it comes to organic (house) church, the “spiritual season” has changed, at least from my persective. As we used to say back home in the South, where peach orchards are as plentiful as orange groves in Orange County, “the fuzz is off the peach” in organic church. The novelty factor is – for the most part – gone. The excitement of the “new thing” has waned. The large national conferences attended by hundreds of curious seekers have dwindled or altogether disappeared. The “tire kickers” have come and gone. An active and committed remnant remains. House Church even receives occasional favorable mention in the mainline Christian press. In addition, there are good things taking place. Neil Cole is doing good work on many aspects of organic church, including the 5-Fold ministry gifts. John White and the Luke 10 group is focusing on organic discipleship. Jon Zens of Searching Together continues to provide good, stable teaching resources on a variety of house church issues. Felicity Dale is writing about women and discovering their biblical roles and callings in the Church. And new organic church bloggers (like “Captain Kirk” with whom I’ve had some “Klingon” fun) and new house church discussion groups (such as this one on Facebook) have come on line (also check out the “SimpleChurch” site).
But from my admittedly limited perspective, far too much of our conversation continues to be inwardly focused on ourselves; conversations which are of interest to us, but to noone else. A. W. Tozer put it this way, a generation ago: “True religion confronts earth with heaven and brings eternity to bear upon time. The messenger of Christ, though he speaks from God, must also, as the Quakers used to say, ‘speak to the condition’ of his hearers; otherwise he will speak a language known only to himself. His message must be not only timeless, but timely. He must speak to his own generation.” Most of us involved in organic church would agree that, in the generation since A. W. Tozer made that penetrating observation, organized Christianity has (for the most part) squandered enormous resources of time, money and energy speaking a language known only to itself (or attempting to mimic the language of our Postmodern culture), while ignoring the universally understood “language of the Kingdom of God”; the language of God’s love and compassion, embodied in good deeds done in His Name. This reality highlights a question raised by Christian author and apologist Ravi Zacharias, namely, how DO we effectively reach a generation of people who “listen with their eyes and think with their feelings”?
If we are going to effectively reach our generation, it isn’t going to happen by continuing the same inwardly focused religious discussions which have been the hallmarks of traditional organized church for generations; the only difference being that we are now having those discussions in our living rooms, or on internet house church discussion forums. In the immortal words of our friend John White, “Honey, I shrunk the church!”
I believe it is time to change our conversation: from “church” to “Kingdom”; from “participation” to “discipleship”; from focusing on ourselves and our “religious discussions” to focusing on others (particularly “the least of these”). It is my belief that, in order to move forward, organic church must move beyond the four walls of our houses (or wherever you happen to be gathering to meet) and into places where the neediest of our generation can be found and where we can be salt and light to a generation that, in the words of Ravi Zacharias, “listens with its eyes and thinks with its feelings.” In the Kingdom of God, discipleship begins with engagement (See Chapter 9 – “Beginnings” in our book, And They Dreamt Of A Kingdom). It is time for organic church to move into those places where we can engage our generation.
A Conspiracy Of Kindness And Good Deeds
Several years ago I met Steve Sjogren and heard him speak at a Vineyard conference in Anaheim, Ca. He was (and probably still is) one of those very active ADHD people who made the rest of us tired just watching him. But what was obvious to all 1,500 of us at the conference was Steve’s passion for doing good. One of the ways his passion found expression was in his book, Conspiracy of Kindness. His book came to mind as I reflected on recent events and began composing this post. I suppose that Steve and his “Conspiracy of Kindness” came to mind because recent events in my own life over the past several months have led us to re-launch “My Brother’s Keeper” after a three-year hiatus. This is an idea and a project which we were forced to put on hold while care-taking Gale’s parents. The Holy Spirit seemed to breathe new life into the project this year as we filed Rising River Media as a non-profit and included “My Brother’s Keeper” as one of the stated purposes of the ministry. To borrow a thought from Steve Sjogren, the goal of “My Brother’s Keeper” is to ignite a conspiracy of kindness and good deeds toward those in need, people whom Jesus described as “the least of these.” Our purpose is to be “salt and light” for the Kingdom of God to a generation which “listens with its eyes and thinks with its feelings.”
Re-Launching “My Brother’s Keeper”
We have spent most of this summer in this “re-launch” process. Here are a few of the highlights which might interest you.
1. New Rising River Media Website – As part of this “re-launch” we have set up a new website for Rising River Media, which I hope you will explore. You will find all of our books posted there, along with a front page blog where these newsletters will be posted (old newsletter articles can be found in the “Article Archive” in the Menu). Our long-term goal is to provide a “publishing home” for budding organic church writers who have meaningful and relevant things to say concerning organic church.
2. “My Brother’s Keeper” Site – On the Rising River Media site, click on “My Brother’s Keeper” in the Menu Tabs. That will take you to the “My Brother’s Keeper” site, including our blog, and additional resources. Make sure you check out the “Everyone Has A Story” page. We are going to begin collecting people’s stories of struggles and overcoming, and stories of good deeds done toward “the least of these.” See if it’s time to tell your story! Do you and your organic church have a story of engaging in good deeds that you want to tell. We want to collect stories which can become video projects. Do you have one?
3. “The Least of These” Updated – As part of this “re-launch” we have issued a “Revised and Updated Edition” of our book, The Least of These: The Role Of Good Deeds In A Jesus-Shaped Spirituality. It has been thoroughly updated. We’ve included a complete chapter on the “My Brother’s Keeper” Project, and you’re going to love the new cover. We contacted nationally known water color artist Laurie Goldstein-Warren and asked her permission to use a watercolor painting she did entitled “My Brother’s Keeper.” It is breath-takingly good and she graciously licensed it to us for the cover of our Revised Edition. I hope you will order a copy (the order link to Amazon should go active in the next few days, so be patient).
4. Weekly Radio Program/Podcast – Starting in October (October 5th) we will be producing a :15-minute radio program called “My Brother’s Keeper.” We hope to quickly expand it to :30-minutes. It will air Sundays at 12-Noon on the 5 stations of the American Christian Network (ACN) covering Central/Eastern Washington and into parts of Northern Idaho and Northeastern Oregon. Each program will also be posted as a Podcast, so people living outside of our broadcast area can listen at their convenience. Our goal for the program is to “incite” our listeners to “greater love and good deeds” through interviews, stories/testimonies, biblical teaching and exposing issues.
Allow me to offer this as my challenge to you and your organic church; a challenge to get involved, to change the conversation and to engage our generation by inciting a conspiracy of kindness and good deeds. Where this conspiracy and the good deeds which flow from it will lead us is known only to God. That’s part of the unpredictable “wildness” of organic growth in the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:26-29).
Welcome to our official website. Rising River Media is a non-profit Christian media and publishing company. Our mission is to produce quality media resources in support of organic house churches. We have four basic priorities or goals which guide what we do: 1) To Proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, 2) To Raise up and equip committed disciples of that Kingdom, 3) To Plant multiplying organic house churches, and 4) To Serve “the least of these.”
We hope you’ll take a few minutes to check out the resources we offer. Because we’re continually updating those resources, we hope you’ll become a regular visitor.
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Maurice Smith is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an alumnus of Campus Crusade for Christ, International ("Cru") and an honors graduate of Denver Baptist Seminary where he also served as adjunct faculty. He is an accomplished author of several books on theology, spiritual awakening and organic house church.
Gale Smith serves as the Artistic Director of Rising River Media. Gale is a graduate of Spokane Falls Community College (AA) and Eastern Washington University (BA – Fine Arts). Following graduation Gale joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ ("Cru"), serving at their International Headquarters in the Art Department as a graphic designer. Gale is an accomplished and gifted artist in a wide variety of contexts and mediums including graphic design, logos, illustrations, water colors and pastels.
Maurice and Gale met and on Cru Staff and have been married now for 36 years. They reside in Spokane, Washinton and have two adult children. Together they coordinate Rising River Media, a non-profit media and publishing company.