Church

By biblical definition, the Church is the Body of Christ. In more human terms, it is the community of the saints, the ones that have been adopted as children of the Most High through the blood of Jesus Christ our Savior. Traditionally, and as a consequence of distorted, and ill intentions and interpretations, it is also the place where Christians meet to listen to sermons, pay their tithes, sometimes learn about the Bible  and say “hello” to other Christians.

Sadly, that “hello” is most of the time what many Christians call fellowship, friendship, and God’s call for “koinonia” among  brethren. Apart from that, nothing else happens between most brothers and sisters in our church environment. Many attend church services in obedience (and also the pastor’s continual insistence) on verses like “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25) as if that meant attending a particular meeting, usually once on Sundays in a designated room or building called “the church”. It is amazing how ignorance plays such an important part in today’s concept of what church really means and what God’s eternal purpose is with respect to it. To begin with, there were no Christian temples to talk about when Hebrews was written following God’s inspiration. Actually, it was extremely dangerous or nearly impossible for believers to gather in public places because of persecution from the authorities. So, what is the true meaning of “assembling ourselves together…”? If there were no temples or approved places for many to gather into, what did it really mean?

According the the Book of Acts, early Christians used to visit one another quite frequently to have fellowship, discuss and talk about Scriptures, share Christian love as commanded by Jesus while protecting one another from intrusion from the persecuting non-believers. They were the Church, and still are. If the Spirit of God owns us, either dead or alive we continue to be part of the eternal Church which is also God’s family. As family we love each other, care for each other, visit frequently, help one another, talk (in person, no emails or texts), interact with each other, pray for each other and for the ones that are not yet part of the family but in response to fervent prayer and the will of God will eventually become family themselves. The beauty of the church is that it is not a place where people attend to get bored with lame sermons or follow man made commandments or misinterpretation of Scripture. As God’s people we are the church. The church goes with us wherever we go and the true leader of the Church, Jesus himself, goes along with us!

In many so called churches today we are always visitors. How many times have you been to services where you will always be asked to stand and present yourself in order for people to get to know who you are? Obviously you will never be part of them. You will never attain true fellowship, you will never be visited nor you will be invited to visit them in their homes. How can there be church between people that only meet and say just a “hello” on Sundays? Do you really think that God gave the blood of His only Son so that He could come up with such a distortion of His kingdom?

Let’s be honest. How many times have you been invited to the home of a church member if only to talk about the Lord and about you and them (not to gossip about others)? Personally I have the custom of inviting church people to my home. I want them to share at least a “peace offering” of a cup of coffee with them. I like to hear testimonies and offer mine to strengthen our mutual faith in the Lord. But in today’s church that is a forgotten thing. If you are lucky you will get to see your brethren for about one hour on Sunday morning, say “hello” and hope to meet again the following Sunday. That is the modern church.

We all share the blame for the current state of affairs in our churches. People have been taught that church is the building they are supposed to attend or risk losing their salvation. So, instead of being a pleasure and the result of loving one another, it becomes a chore that must be done every Sunday. And don’t forget to pay for the privilege following the Old Testament tithe “commandment”. All because unlike the old times, modern churches need money to pay for expenses, salaries, maintain “missions” and other thing that are mostly fruits of somebody’s imagination or greed. Churches must be large with a lot of “members” in order to collect lots of money needed to support the “work” of the Lord. Pastors share the blame. When was the last time you heard your pastor emphasize the need for the brethren to visit one another outside of the church building? To open their hearts and homes to their brothers and sisters? To be friends with each other? As a matter of fact many pastors don’t like the idea of member of their congregations meeting outside the temple or in their homes because they might fall into the “trap” of dividing their “church” and sprouting new “churches”. Call it plain and simple insecurity because they know that they don’t have a firm foundation to sustain the empire that they want so desperately to build and maintain. They simply think that the church is theirs.

Do we actually have to “go to church” in order to meet God there? The last I knew was that God was everywhere, actually inside of us believers by His Spirit. But ignorance has dictated that God has to be found within the walls of the temple. I remember when I was a child, I was taught that God was placed inside a small chamber in the main altar of the “church” and secured in there under lock and key. Every Sunday He was freed and shown around by the person in charge (called a priest in those times) and then locked up again until the following Sunday.

Does all this sound like manipulation? You better believe it is. For many years I was a “member” of this “church” and have to shamefully admit, benefited from its perks. For all that and more He, in His infinite mercy and love, made me pay dearly so that I could learn the right way and true doctrine. At the same time I must glorify God because He raised me up from the filth of my own sin, created in me a new heart free to admit that I was an even worse sinner than many, and showed me the way to His freedom for which He paid dearly on the cross.

I thank God that because of the present persecutions, bad press, and ultimate sinful behavior among the so called “clergy”, many good people are returning to the old ways of meeting in their homes, promoting respect and love for God, making friends with neighbors, spreading the Gospel with their own example, and indirectly scraping society from the stain of the modern so called “churches” a term that includes large and small empires and money making corporations. It is time to throw the Pharisees out of God’s temple, beginning with the Pharisee that lives in our own self (the true temple) where it hides behind manipulations, self righteousness, ignorance, false “love”, enmities, jealousy, priestly clothing, titles, position, thrones, and all the many other things whose only purpose is to exalt man instead of glorifying God.

Yes, like God said through His prophet Jeremiah: “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16). Unfortunately, like they said in the past, so they say today: “We will not walk therein.” (verse 17).

The good news is that the King is coming back. He will restore all this mess to its original purpose. Until then, may His love, mercy and grace be with you and with all that love and worship Him, the one and only God, Lord of all, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who gave us His Spirit, the guarantee of our salvation.

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Friends (A Sequel)

Sorry I have not written lately. The written media seems to be full of political talk, religious talk and other subjects that I don’t want to touch even with a long pole. Don’t misunderstand me, I do have my points of view on all those subjects, but they are mine and mine only, not for public consumption. I prefer to write about life, particularly my life, experiences, what in Spanish we call “vivencias”, things that happen to all of us one time or the other and usually repeat themselves in a lifetime, and in addition, are usually beneficial to all.

I like the subject of friendship. I think that once upon a time, sometime ago I quoted somebody saying: “a friend is somebody that knows everything about you and still keeps you in high esteem” or something like that. Excuse me for not remembering the exact words. I just turned 70 and my mind sometimes struggles to remember things. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that I have to keep writing. I need to exercise my mind as if it were a muscle in order to keep it healthy! Who said that? I don’t really know but somebody did!

How many friends do you have? I have to confess that I don’t have many. Most of my acquaintances, that I usually don’t call friends because of the above definition, are just that: people that I find and get to know while time passes along, not stopping for enough time to really engage in getting to know one another. Such are the so-called “Facebook” friends. How many Facebook friends to you hold dearly and share with them after accepting their “friend request”? I find it so ridiculous that it is laughable. From time to time I have to go back to Facebook just to “un-friend” people that have not even said “hello” after becoming “friends” with me.

I have lived in many places and had many neighbors. How many neighbors have been my friends? I am not afraid to say that maybe one or so. Most of them just pass by you while walking their dogs and say “hi”. For them and for many that’s friendship. Many of them won’t even look at you, less remember you at all, but will say “hi” because that is supposed to be a sign of friendship. How superficial we have become!

And how about husbands and wives? Are they friends? Well, many will say that they have sex (although some don’t even do that), they eat together (particularly when they go to restaurants), they talk and discuss about their “friends” and neighbors, they gossip, they might even talk about work relationships, problems, and other “stuff”. But they never talk about themselves. That is usually taboo among married couples. Too bad, but it is true. That may be a reason that many use for never getting married, just living together without any commitment because as soon as there is a commitment they fear that these conversations will inevitably follow and they don’t want that. Better not to commit than to face reality, they say. Remember, prostitution exists, among other “reasons”,  because there are many who prefer sex without commitment other than paying for the “favor”. “It is business, nothing personal”, like the Godfather used to say.

But no matter what people might think or say, friendship is a good thing. It is beautiful, it is human, it is godly, and has eternal value. God was (or is) a friend of Abraham; He was a friend of David, and I am sure He is a friend of all those that are otherwise called His children. He knows everything about us and still loves us! He fulfills the definition. He meets the criteria. Praise His Name for that!

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A Letter to a Friend and Brother

The following is a letter that I sent to a dear friend and brother in Christ when his father passed on. It is written in Spanish as I found it difficult to convey in any other language the feelings that accompany it. Not that it cannot be done in English, but just that I found it difficult to express what I felt about this sensitive subject in a language that is not my native one. I hope you will be able to translate not only the words but the sentiment that goes with them and that you will be nurtured in the spirit, if not by the theology behind them but at least by the love that they convey.  Thank you. Here is the text…

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Lamento mucho la partida de tu padre. No importa cómo lo miremos, fue el padre que Dios te dio. Comprendo que no nos toca a nosotros juzgar, sino honrar, como Dios manda. Cuando recuerdo a mi propio padre, no puedo menos que traer a la memoria muchas cosas desagradables que asociar con él. No obstante, después de haber conocido al Señor, comprendí que no me toca a mi juzgar sino honrar padre y madre como El mismo lo mandó.

Cuando evalúo mi propia vida y la comparo con la de mi padre, comprendo que en realidad no he sido mucho mejor que él. El cometió muchos errores pero yo también he cometido los míos. No puedo juzgarlo sin evadir la realidad de mi propia vida. En fin de cuentas: “No hay justo, ni uno solo.” Solo la sangre de Cristo hace la diferencia al lavarnos y presentarnos limpios y sin mancha delante de El. Pero en nuestro interior, somos lo que somos y lo único que nos redimirá será la nueva creación que el Señor completará en aquél día. Me parece que por amor a nosotros, Dios también hará la obra en nuestros seres queridos. No sé cómo pero me da la impresión que El lo hará para Su gloria y para que nos demos cuenta de la inmensidad de Su amor, comprensión y ternura. Me da la impresión de que Dios es más bueno de lo que nosotros creemos.

Si se aceptaran apuestas, me inclino a pensar que ganaría si apuesto a que volverás a ver a tu padre allá en la presencia del Altísimo. De la misma manera que veré al mío a pesar de todas las cosas terribles que hizo en vida y de la forma que abandonó a quienes más le amaban en esta vida. Me parece que en aquél día les amaremos con amor puro, con el amor de Cristo que sobrepasa todo entendimiento, viendo las cosas como El las ve y no en base a experiencias en esta vida. Allá la gente no tendrá defectos, Dios se ocupará de eso. De alguna manera El secará las lágrimas de nuestros ojos y con el mismo pañuelo quitará todo resentimiento, recuerdos, rencores, juicios, y todo lo que afecta las relaciones humanas como las conocemos ahora.

Demás está que tratemos de vivir el cielo en esta tierra. No es posible pues falta lo esencial, la nueva creación no solo en Espíritu sino también en todo el ser.

Quiero que sepas que comparto tu pena, tu dolor y el dolor de tus hermanos y familia. Cuando se va la familia, nosotros también perdemos algo que se va con ellos. Lo hermoso es que el Señor no se olvida. Siempre he pensado que El salva familias, no individuos por separado. Eso me distancia de la visión de la moderna iglesia que siempre piensa que “la salvación es individual”. Yo pienso que el Señor salva a los hijos por amor a sus padres que le sirven y que aquello de “tu y tu casa” funciona todavía. No soy Dios para garantizar nada pero me da la impresión de que tus lágrimas no cayeron en tierra y que tus oraciones no fueron en vano. Dios escucha y se deleita en misericordia.

Te amo mi hermano. Y pienso en ti.

En Cristo,
Ramón

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Looking Forward to the Blessing

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Book of Revelation)

A sad thing about getting old is that slowly but surely one loses all his friends. We are “left behind” by those that opt for an “early departure” and simply leave this world for a better life with the Lord and his angels. Like the verse says, the ones that die in the Lord are blessed and look forward to an eternity of fulfillment and happiness. The ones that stay simply continue with their “labors”. The ones that stay experience a loneliness and isolation that creeps to the point that many simply decide to join a retirement community, assisted living facility, or in the worst of cases, simply take their own lives.

Man was not made to live alone. He was made to live and function in community, preferably surrounded by friends, loved ones, and family. In today’s culture the family ties are not strong. The result is that old parents are usually left alone by themselves or simply moved to a facility for seniors where somebody else is paid to provide the basic services. As we age, the ranks of the company that grew with us simply thins down to a trickle and eventually we are left with only memories, looking at old photo albums and remembering the good old times.

I have lost so many friends that I wonder why it is taking me so long to go. More than half of my high school class are gone. Friends that shared my life in the various places where I lived have departed. Nobody replaces them. It takes a life to make good friends. One just can’t buy them in the nearest Walmart. They are “irreplaceable assets”. Even many that graduated with me from the university are long gone. They are now resting from their labor.

I was talking with one of my remaining friends this morning. Thanks to FaceTime we are able to look at each other via computer. We agreed on many things especially the fact that the most important thing that really keeps us going is our faith. Knowing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that there is a blessing in waiting for us, a place of rest from the turbulence and loneliness of this life is the best antidote for depression that man could ever invent.

One of my remaining friends is approaching the end of his journey at this time. It is something that repeats itself again and again, more so as we get older. Another departure. Another celebration of life for the ones that go and a reminder of more loneliness to come for the ones that stay behind. I have spoken with him several times remembering the times we shared, without too much emphasis on the fact that he is about to go. He told me he is ready. He knows that he will be in a better place. I am not ready to lose another friend. I am still dealing with the feeling that is already dawning on me. His deeds will follow him. He will be just fine. I will miss him till that day when we will join the family of the redeemed.

Some may say that there is nothing after we depart this life. That would be very sad. If that is so, then there is no consolation, no hope, nothing to look up to, only a desert to traverse without even the hope of an oasis. I prefer to believe in what HE said. It helps me to live what remains of my journey. It gives me something to look forward to. I may run out of friends but I will still have a FRIEND that is waiting for me at the other side. When my time comes I will also rest from my labors. Hopefully my good deeds, albeit scant, will follow me. Thankfully, HIS deed is sufficient. Because of what HE did for me, I am complete, ready to go, luggage ready, just waiting for the signal to fly away and receive the promised blessing.

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A Contrite Heart (re-print)

For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57)

How can God be like he is? The only logical answer I can find is that only God can be like God is. When I started walking in the ways of the Lord I was in awe at the holiness required to be a Christian. All I could hear was the need to be holy, to act holy, to speak holy, to think holy and never fail to walk in the ways of holiness. I was so overwhelmed by these thoughts that nothing I could do would give me peace. How could such a “clean” God accept such a lowly sinner as I was?

One true thing about me is that I have never thought of me as a model of good behavior for others to follow. I have always known my limitations. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel any respect for many hypocrites that claim to  “float” over this world without soiling their shoes with the ground we all walk on. I know very well the materials of which I am made. Not very good. The clay at “Punta Brava” where I was born and raised was not good even for normal pottery. Therefore it was kind of scary to consider that one day I would have to appear in His presence to receive judgement from His hands. I was not the meanest of the bunch. My problem was that I was intelligent enough to know the difference between good and bad, and my actions and thoughts were always leaning toward the mean side. If I didn’t know, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But I knew…

So here I am, looking forward to facing a God that lives in a high and holy place and whose name is holy. Can there be hope for me? Would I be allowed in his holy place with my soiled shoes and dubious ways? Honesty is a good thing. Not lying to ourselves keeps us sane and mentally healthy. It allows us to live with respect for ourselves and for others, not allowing us to think higher of us than what is fair and true. The problem is that to fair well in the after life we may need a lot more that just being honest in this life. Honesty does not clean our acts enough to give us the boost we need to reach heaven and get a solid foothold there. It is a wonderful attribute but not enough.

But then I found out that God can live in two places at the same time: a clean and shiny one, and a not so clean one in need of a lot of brooming, cleaning, mopping, disinfecting and shining. That is what the verse above says. He is holy but is not afraid to lose his holiness by living inside a human being that , although honest, needs a total make up, overhaul, revamping, and even making anew. All he requires is a contrite heart, one that acknowledges its condition and confesses its needs with a lowly spirit.

Humbleness is the key. Not an easy thing for proud people to attain.

It hasn’t been easy to be humble. There are so many things that tend to make us proud. It is difficult to live without being “proud” of something, achievements, job, position, professional standing. It is such a delicate balance that unless we have our sights clearly aligned with Him we tend to fall by the wayside.

Humbleness is not considered “cool” in our days. Many times it is considered a sign of weakness. Nobody said it would be simple. Only that it is possible. We will never qualify to be like God, or even to be in his presence counting only on our own merit. We could be “honestly” lost forever. I know many honest people that unless something happens in their lives, may spend eternity in eternal separation from God. Humbleness, the conscious decision to confess our need for Him, the acceptance of our limitations and total inability to make it to heaven on our own, will pave the way for us. A broken and contrite heart will never be rejected by our loving God.

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Friendship

The dictionary defines the word “friendship” as a relationship of affection, sympathy and trust that is established between people that are not family related.  This definition introduces other terms which also need to be acknowledged and defined.  What is “Affection”?  What is “Sympathy”?  What is “Trust”?

The superficiality that characterizes our time has permeated our lives in such a way that a “friend” is someone who is requesting to be approved by the “click” of a mouse on a computer that is connected to “Facebook”, for example.  The result is that we could have a bunch of “friends”, whom we don’t know, whom which we have no affinity or sympathy with, and with whom we do not have a relationship of affection, and much less, one of trust.

It seems to me that the issue is not to know the definition of the term.  What is important and practical, I believe, is “being a friend”.  How does a person behave when feeling affection for the other?  How do we display sympathy towards a person who is not in our family circle?  How do we display trust towards someone whom we “don’t know”?  It seems to me that it is much easier to speak about friends and friendship than being one.

Someone once said that “a friend is someone who knows everything about you and esteems you anyways.”  Maybe this is not the definition that appears in the dictionaries, but without a doubt is one that is very practical.  Words tend to be empty when they are not backed by actions.  It does not serve well to speak a lot and do little.  Interpersonal relationships do not get nourished by vane words but by the actions which are conducive to the benefit of the other person.  True affection is not directed to better our position, but instead, to give ourselves freely to the benefit of the other person whom we call friend.  Trust is displayed, precisely, when we refuse to accept that which others think obvious, but goes in discredit or discriminates against of that someone whom we call friend.

Friend is someone whom you don’t have to wear a mask with.  Someone who knows you and knows everything about you, and accepts you the way you are without you having to change anything about yourself.  Is that whom does not insist in changing you in order to accept you into his “kingdom”.  Friend is that who remains by your side, defending you, when others attack you.  Friend is that which holds you in high esteem when others despise you, simply because the friendship ties do not depend on the circumstances to remain valid.  Friend is that who does not seek after “his own”, instead, in his list of priorities you go before him.

In my case, I prefer to have a few who know everything about me and esteem me anyway; even if they do not know the definition of the term.

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Rescue and Restoration

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40)

Most of us have seen sad times in our lives, even though our best intentions have been  to live according to our highest principles. Failures and sadness seem to be the patrimony of the human race. We are no exception.  I still remember the famous question when I was just a small kid: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Did we ever answer we were planning to be losers, or failures? Nevertheless, we fail, and fail more than once, sometimes falling in the same pit again and again. I don’t know if that is a consequence of our “original sin” or simply the human condition, a nature that we wear like a dress and follow daily with our innermost thoughts and processes.

David, who was no stranger to failures, finally learned his lesson and was kind enough to leave the answer for posterity. We are the beneficiaries of his hard earned knowledge and experience. He was the chosen king of Israel but still another human being, just like us. After falling many times and having learned not to blame anybody else but himself, he wrote Psalm 40, a testament to God’s power and love to redeem, rescue, and restore those that have nowhere else to go but to Him.

While in the pit, David learned to wait patiently for the Lord. How many times do we ask God: “please give me patience”? That’s a dangerous petition. Patience 101 is taught only in the pit. Not funny. That’s where we learn to be patient. But we learn. God is a good teacher, no questions about that. Once we learn we become better persons with greater self control. We also learn not to expect anything from fellow human beings, Government programs and other sources that will finally take more than what they give. If we get something from them, that’s a bonus. We learn to depend completely in the Lord.

How many people cry out to God at the same time? Only God can receive so many signals interfering with each other from his kids here on Earth. How can he identify the source, the need, the place, etc? Well, He is God, isn’t he? He is a personal God. He knows His sheep by name. His sheep hear His voice. He is the God of the world and the masses but he is also a personal, a one-to-one God that takes special care, particularly of those whose heart has been offered to Him in love. “He turned to me and heard my cry.” What makes me so important that God takes time from whatever He is doing and turns to me to listen to my need? Nothing. It is all about His love that is bestowed on all His children. They are all important to Him. That’s the way He is. I know that when I cry to Him, He listens. Action is stopped at Heaven, angels stand by for orders form the Master, He listens, and issues His command: “Lift him up from the slimy pit! He fell again. He is weak and slow to learn. But he is my child, I love him, he loves me, and I AM there for him no matter what!”

He lifted me out of the slimy pit…” The slimy pit is a dangerous place to be. It is filled with quicksand. The more you move, the quicker you sink in it. It is impossible for us to save ourselves. We need external help, somebody to extend at least a rod that we may grasp. Our Savior uses His cross for that. He extends his cross over the slimy pit, over the quicksand, we grasp it and he pulls us to safety. After all, he’s been there. He knows about slimy pits. He is uniquely qualified to provide the assistance we need. A lot of people may listen and talk. Our Lord listens and acts! Things happen!

“He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” Nothing makes a fall easier than a shaky ground to stand on. In contrast to the unreliable nature of the institutions of this world (even banks are failing), God is a firm platform to stand on. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Firm on that platform we can then lounge to a future full of guaranteed results. Human advice and choices offer only a temporary fix. Only the Lord is eternal and his cure permanent. He is the secret to a stable life.

Finally, He puts a new song in our lips and hearts. Could we be happy while remembering the suffering and failures of the past? You know as well as I do that many people (including us) have a tough time forgetting past mistakes, failures and suffering. Many times, past mistakes are like anchors that prevent us from moving forward and spreading our wings like eagles. Suffering is addictive. It tends to stick to us. When God does the job, he does it completely. He replaces the whining with a new song. Sometimes we don’t even understand why we are so full of joy. It is OK not to understand it. After all, who cares? There are so many things we don’t understand in life. His new song actually erases bad memories and replaces them with a joy that flows from inside out and touches everyone with whom we come in contact. How can people that came from the slimy pit be so happy? Only He knows! Like the hymn says: “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day  long!”

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