Just Another Haunted House?

He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

Matthew 21:13 (Christian Standard Bible, via Biblehub.com)
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It’s October. Time for apple cider, falling leaves, pumpkin spice cookies, bonfires, corn mazes, and “haunted houses.” I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my neighborhood, we usually have dozens of local charities decorating barns or old factories or houses, and charging people to visit in the nights leading up to Halloween. They hang cobwebs and mirrors, create mazes and special effects– creaky doors, moving floors, glowing objects, eerie moans, flashing lights, and pop-up creatures , along with volunteers dressed up as ghosts or mummies or zombies to guide them along the way. Hundreds of people tromp and shudder, laugh and scream, as they travel through the house. They come back and bring their friends, eager to watch their reactions, and see if they can remember all the “surprises” to come.

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I’m not a big fan of haunted houses. I don’t like being frightened for “fun.” And I don’t like giving money, time, and thought to making “fun” of death and evil spirits. This year, with COVID still a factor, many of the haunted houses are closed or operating very differently. So are many other venues, including churches.

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Which brings me to a startling thought–have some of our churches become nothing more than a kind of haunted house? People come to be entertained; to feel their pulse beat faster, or get excited about a particularly good worship sequence. They may even come to be “frightened” a little by sermons about hell and death, sort of like watching a spooky movie or listening to ghost stories by the campfire. They meet up with their friends, and go out together afterwards to their favorite restaurant. The service is filled with special effects– lights and videos, booming bass lines and dynamic guitar solos, volunteers dressed up to greet visitors, serve coffee and donuts, collect money, and take attendance; sometimes even gimmicks, and props, and prizes.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong for churches to be warm and welcoming; I don’t think they have to be gloomy and boring. But we’ve spent so much time making our churches “attractive;” put so much of our time and effort into making worship thrilling and fulfilling, that we’ve lost our focus. This isn’t “the people’s house.” It isn’t a “fun house.” It is God’s house. A house of prayer. A house of honor and reverence. A Holy place. We’ve made our churches places of basketball courts and coffee bars; playrooms and gift shops; social networks and small business incubators…

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We read about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, but we erect huge signs in front of the church tracking our fundraising efforts for a new roof. We are not a “den of thieves.” But are we a “house of prayer?” Are we meeting together to pray, or to be entertained? To meet with God, or to meet up for fellowship? Are we creating a maze of mirrors and gimmicks, instead of calling out in urgency and humility to Almighty God? Are the pews, or chairs, or stadiums, filled with the (spiritually) walking dead?

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Jesus created a stir when He rebuked the money changers. They hadn’t suddenly appeared and set up shop. They didn’t see themselves as “thieves.” After all, they weren’t stealing from anyone. They were buying and selling items connected with the Temple worship–animals for sacrifice, incense, food for hungry travelers… They weren’t stealing money– not exactly. Maybe they charged extra for their services; for the convenience. Maybe they had bribed someone or used their influence to get a prime marketing spot inside the Temple perimeter. But that’s just business. And, until Jesus kicked up a fuss, no one seemed to notice or mind.

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Jesus wasn’t upset about money– He was upset about those who were stealing from the Father. Cheapening His glory, crowding in on His House, bringing the noise of everyday commerce into the court of contemplation. Bringing dust and pettiness into His Holy presence. Trading the Awe of His Majestic Temple for the “aw, shucks” of a day at the mall– or a trip to the Haunted House.

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We have a real opportunity as “The Church” to take a close look at what we have become, and how we want to adjust to “life after the pandemic.” If Jesus were to visit our church, would He find it a House of Prayer, or a Haunted House?

Green Acres

Psalm 23:2a King James Version (KJV)
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures

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Many years ago (never mind how many..) there was a television show called “Green Acres.” It was a comedy about a couple from New York City, who moved to a small town in the country. The husband was excited about the move– he was tired of the rat race and bustle of the city; his wife, however, was reluctant to leave all the opportunities– she missed the shops and activity.

Green Acres was one of a group of shows that both celebrated and poked fun at rural life in America in the sixties and early seventies. The shows were very popular among viewers, but were panned by critics, and cancelled by network executives, even at the height of their popularity. https://www.closerweekly.com/posts/cbs-rural-purge-mayberry-rfd-green-acres/

More than fifty years later, you can often see these shows on networks like TV Land. They are still popular among some viewers, who like the nostalgia and the gentle humor. These shows all have happy endings. They don’t involve grotesque murders, lots of foul language, preachy lectures on social issues like homelessness, domestic abuse, or drug addiction, or copious amounts of sex, violence, or nudity. They don’t talk about war and gangs, poverty or prejudice, or urban sprawl. They celebrate family, fresh air, hard work, community, truth, justice, kindness, and humility.

What does “Green Acres” (or Andy Griffith or any other old TV show) have to do with Psalm 23 and Pursuing Prayer? Not a lot, but I would like to look at the phrase in verse 2– “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures..” Not the same as “Green Acres,” but I think the green pastures of God are viewed by the world in much the same way as “Green Acres;” scorned by a small and vocal group, but quietly cherished by many others.

Our Shepherd causes us to lie down– to find rest and nourishment and refreshing– in green pastures. That doesn’t mean that He won’t lead us through times of bustling stress, struggle, anxious moments, or rugged paths. But He will make us lie down. He will cause us to stop our frantic rushing, and renew our strength in green pasture. He doesn’t offer green pastures as an “escape from reality”, but as a reminder that dealing with reality requires us to see beyond the immediate stresses of the day and listen beyond the distracting noises around us.

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God’s green pastures won’t look like “Green Acres” with old tractors and fresh-mown hay. They may not look like the small town simplicity of Americana. In fact, God’s green pastures may not be places at all, but practices– spending time in Scripture, time in prayer, times in fellowship and encouragement, time in meditation, even time in service to others. You may find green pastures in the heart of a barrio, or in the quiet of a walk in the forest, or in praying as you climb a flight of stair or fold laundry. But you will find spiritual nourishment and renewal in God’s green pastures, wherever they are and whatever they look like. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/treasury-of-david/psalms-23-2.html

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God’s green pastures will have many critics, who will ask that you cancel these practices. They will call them old-fashioned, failed practices– naive, simplistic, even laughable. But as we respond to God who make us lie down in green pastures, others are watching– and taking heart. The critics in our life may be loud and insistent. It may seem like they have the power to “cancel” our rest, and pave over the green pastures to build another fast food restaurant. But there are others silently watching, longing to experience the kind of rest and refreshment they see in us– the kind that cannot come from sophisticated treatises on war or crime, or harsh critics’ disdain, or yet another trip to an upscale shop or fast food restaurant or spa.

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A few years ago, I left a full-time job– a job I loved–to help my husband open up a second-hand store that also sells amateur radio equipment. Most people would look on our store as a failure–it doesn’t make a lot of money; we don’t have hundreds of sales in a week; it hasn’t made us famous or important. But it gives me the opportunity to spend time talking and listening to the customers we do have, many of whom are lonely. It gives David the opportunity to do the same. And it gives me time to pray more, spend more time in God’s word, and write and edit this blog. It has allowed me more flexibility to spend time with my family. And it has reminded me that God is our provider and protector in ways I took for granted when I drew a bigger salary and had a more prominent position. From a worldly perspective, this is a move I would never have chosen. I spend most of my days lonely and unpaid–hardly a recipe for worldly fulfillment. And many days, I actually miss the bustle of deadlines, the drama of staff conflicts, and the extra money in the bank. And some days I am frustrated and ungrateful and restless–God has led me to the green pastures, but I refuse to lie down and receive the rest He wants to give me. And God may choose to make me get up and move through valleys, up hills, or over rocky paths to the next pasture. But for this season, in this pasture, He is teaching me to lie down–to be less busy about my business, and more open to His.

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The world may offer us Times Square; God offers us fresh air. The world may offer us clever ways to spend our time and money– God gives us peace that passes all understanding. God’s “Green Acres” is the place to be–resting where and how our Shepherd leads us.

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