In the cool of the evening I walk amongst my cows and calves, and the calves run kicking up their heels. They stop, turn towards me for a moment, only to be off again in the opposite direction, some of them facing off with each other in mock battle, while others race to an imagined finish line, only to abort and race again. They are not afraid and running from me, and they have no place to go. Their mothers, unconcerned about my presence in their midst, peacefully graze or lay chewing their cuds. So why do they run?
They run because they are alive. Not dull, ears droopy, struggling, barely alive. But vibrant, shiny, too much energy, full of life, alive. So alive that it has to come out somewhere.
What made them like that?
In the early part of the day I walk in my wife's garden. The leaves of her vegetables are dark green and glistening in the early morning sun. Everywhere I look things are lush and beautiful. The tomatoes, planted a full five feet apart have grown so that you can't walk between them. Heavy with fruit, some red, some green, and some still in blossom, you have to gingerly find a spot where foot will do no harm. Why are they so lush and fruitful?
They are lush and fruitful because they are vibrant, healthy, full of life. All is well, and they thrive.
So what makes up, “All is well.” What does that look like?
We call the life of a calf and a herd of cattle, a tomato plant and a garden, organic life. We also call the Christian life and the life of a church organic life.
We use the word, “organic,” because both the individual and the church are alive and function in ways that are similar to other living organisms. We become Spiritually alive when we experience new birth. We thrive when a number of spiritual components are all working together. The church needs a shepherd more than it needs a CEO. Growth happens from reproduction rather than acquisition, takeover, or marketing. Reproduction should be a by product of health, just like it is with tomatoes or cows.
The Old Testament uses the word “shalom.” It's a word that describes soul health. Sometimes translated “peace,” it implies wholeness. Someone who can say with a deep sigh, from somewhere deep in the belly, “It is well with my soul,” is experiencing “shalom.”
My blog posts so far have been a lot about the search for soul health -- a product of a daily communion with God. I have spent much time asking what a “normal” experience of God looks like. As I have written, it has become obvious that the full range of normal is not experienced alone. So the quest is for a soul healthy community -- like a healthy garden, or a healthy herd of cattle.
For my calves to skip, they need to have the right combination of protein, energy, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. They need to have good grass to eat, clean water to drink, freedom from predators, the absence of overwhelming viruses or bacteria, and good weather.
For my wife's garden to thrive it needs to have good soil microbiology (lots of worms and cell life), good soil structure (not too loose or too compact), good soil fertility (the right mix of nutrients) good soil moisture, freedom from weeds, and lots of sunshine.
Organic life is not the product of getting one, or even two things right.
In the garden, good nutrition, no water, dead plants. Good nutrition, good moisture, compact soil, the roots can't go down, small spindly plants. Good everything, lots of weeds, choked out plants.
In my cattle, good nutrition and a bad virus or bacteria produces dead calves. High protein but poor energy and not enough fiber and you get diarrhea. Good everything with a wolf in the pen and you get a herd huddled together or running around in panic neither grazing or chewing their cud.
In our churches, instead of looking for this dynamic and healthy mix, we often polarize. One community is very good at praying expectantly and seeing God's divine intervention in people's lives. But the same church makes the sick and dying feel guilty for being sick and dying. People are devastated by tragedy. Standing opposite to them is a church that doesn't pray in faith much, but is able to go with people through suffering. Sometimes they look like they are scratching the edges of Deism. Yet another is very good at reaching out to the poor, but not very good at telling them about Jesus and seeing God birth a new spirit in them. Standing opposite to them is a church that is so concerned about getting people saved from their sin, that they pay little attention to their suffering. Still another believes passionately that salvation is God's work, but does very little to save people.
It seems like we want to be specialists. We specialize in the sovereignty of God, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the importance of right doctrine, living holy lives, social justice... I understand most of those specialties, and I am even very good at some of them. But I am after vibrancy.
I feel like at times my posts misrepresent me. You might think I am fixated on miracles. It's not actually true. It's just that the central feature of a dead church is the absence of God. God does a lot more than intervene miraculously, and some of His miraculous intervening (Spirit gives birth to spirit) is not immediately visible. I know that and rejoice in it.
It's hard to write about.
In my calves I know what I am looking for, but if you came with me, how would I tell you? “That calf's eyes are dull.” “Why are his eyes dull.” “Fighting pneumonia.” “That calf's eyes are dull.” “Fighting pneumonia?” “No, mother doesn't have enough milk.” “The hair coat on these cattle isn't shiny enough.” “Why?” “Probably a mineral deficiency” These aren't shiny enough either.” “Why?” “Not enough energy in the grass.” “So how do you know when they are well?” “Shiny hair coat, bright eyes, excess energy... I sense it as soon as I am with them.”
So you come to me and ask, how can I make my calves skip like your's do? What's the formula?
I answer, “There is no formula?” There are all these components, but on top of that there is a range within which they can thrive. They can thrive in a variety of temperatures, with a variety of feeds, and a variety of settings. Their immune system can handle a significant level of viral attack, but not too much. They can go with marginal feed, but not for too long. They can be frightened for a moment and recover without negative impact, but stress them everyday and they will struggle.
So if I am looking for churches that are vibrant, I don't expect them to be carbon copies of each other. Organic life is too dynamic for that. I expect a range of experience. Dry times and times when God is moving more obviously. Struggles with bondage to sin, and glorious deliverances from sin. Immature expressions of faith and seasoned ones. Loud people and quiet people. People who live out of their emotions and people who live out of their heads. People nursing wounds, and people healed.
There is however one difference between the garden, the herd, and the church. Take the life out of the calf and the carcass rots and returns to the soil. Take the life out of the plant and it dries up and returns to the soil. Take Spiritual life out of the man and he can keep living morally and self righteously for years. Take Spiritual life out of the church and it carries on as a religious organization for decades.
The answer to my lament is just a life and a church that is obviously full of life. The easiest way to see that is in the miraculous. But it's not the only way, and maybe not even the best way.