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?

The Legacy of a Praying Father

My father was a quiet man.  He loved music, and jokes, and animals, and peaceful summer nights listening to crickets and sipping tea on the front porch.  My father was not a man of lengthy, eloquent prayers.  His prayers were often short, and sometimes punctuated with emotional tears.  But my father prayed.  He led our family in prayer and devotions; he prayed in church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.  He spent much time, head bowed, talking silently with his Savior.

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I spoke of a mother’s prayers last month, and they are important.  But fathers play a different role.  My mother’s prayers always seemed to wrap me in a cozy blanket of affection and hope.  My father prayers were more like an umbrella– spreading out over our family to seek God’s protection and grace.  Even if Dad’s voice wavered in prayer, his vocabulary was bold, filled with a rock-solid faith, and a deep sense of God’s power and wisdom ready to be poured out on our family.

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But the most lasting impression I have of my father’s prayers is that of Dad’s reverence for God.  I never, EVER, heard my father take the Lord’s name in vain.  (Not even when his favorite baseball team was losing– again!)  I never heard him express doubt of God’s care, His provision, or His wisdom.  He approached the throne of grace with awe and deep gratitude.  He never lost his sense of wonder at God’s creation, or his sense of awareness of and need for God’s mercy.

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We need men of prayer.  I am so grateful for a husband who prays– regularly, fervently, compassionately, and boldly.  What would happen in our world if more men prayed daily in the quiet of their homes or places of work?  Our society makes fun of men who pray on public platforms, praising themselves as much or more than they praise God.  It denigrates prayer as weakness and hypocrisy, but what if more men of faith led their families in daily prayer?  What if, with trembling voices, more men sought out wisdom and strength to meet the challenges they face, instead of putting on a brave but false face of independence and self-sufficiency?  What if, instead of excusing vulgarity and cursing, more men took the challenge to clean up their language and set better examples.

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If you know men of faith– take some time this weekend to let them know how much their good example means.  Encourage them to finish the race, to keep going, and to leave the kind of legacy that matters most.  And don’t forget to lift them up in prayer!

“Hallowed Be Thy Name…”

Christians have a lot of confusing “jargon”.  If you grew up in the church, there are certain words and phrases that are supposed to be intuitively understood.  If you didn’t grew up in the Bible Belt, or in an old-time church, you may feel like you’ve been dropped into a parallel universe where people speak the King’s English– but it’s King James’ English!  Words that would fit neatly into a Shakespearean monologue are flung at you:  “Thou shalt not,” “graven images”, “begat”, “beseecheth”, “whosoever believeth,” “Hallowed be Thy Name.”

As a child, I used to think the phrase was “hollow-ed be thy name”– it was confusing.  Why would God want his name emptied and hollow?  Why would I do that?  Of course, it was explained to me that “hallowed” meant holy, or honored, or revered.  That made more sense, but I think in some ways we have done more “hollow-ing” and less “hallow-ing” of God’s name in our churches lately.

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And it’s not just the argument I hear a lot about actual language usage.  I hear some people complain about those who pray to “Daddy God” or “Papa God” or those who use “OMG” when they text, or “Jeesh!”  To me, these are “splinter” arguments (another Christian jargon term, referring to Jesus’ example of someone trying to pick a splinter out of someone else’s eye when they have a plank in their own!).  The real trend I see is that we are losing our attitude of AWE in God’s presence.  We use words, and carry attitudes that devalue the one who is most worthy of our absolute best.  Or, we try to put ourselves, our own efforts, and our own attitudes in His place.

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God wants a relationship with us; he loves us with an extravagant, boundless, and everlasting love.  He doesn’t want us to run from him in fear or hide from him behind big, empty, but important-sounding words.  In fact, in his time on Earth, Jesus walked side by side with his disciples, he ate with people, embraced his friends and family, danced, burped, wiped his nose,  held children on his lap, laughed, and lived among us.  But he is eternally GOD.  Yahweh– the LORD–I AM.  Almighty, all-powerful, omniscient and completely HOLY.  And his Name is to be revered.

When we say that we follow Christ;  when we call ourselves Christians, we bear that name– we take on that name–we strive to be ambassadors and representatives of that name which is above all names.  This isn’t just about saying his name, “Jesus”, “Father”, “Savior”, “Heavenly Father” in a less-than-honorable fashion.  It’s about how we represent His Name as his ambassadors.

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We’re not perfect; we will not always live up to the Name we carry– that’s part of the Gospel message–Jesus came to show us how we ought to live, and to give us victory over the reality that we can’t do it in our own flawed state.  But in praying “Hallowed be thy Name,” we are not asking for God’s name to become more honorable.  We are asking God to give us the wisdom, the power, and the desire to bring him the honor and worship he so rightly deserves.  And that only happens when we live transparently, humbly, and in a manner worthy of His Name.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name…”

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