Hebrews 12

angels in the architecture

There is something wonderful about the ancient houses of worship that stand across Europe. I find myself drawn to prayer and reflection when I step across the threshold, beneath the vaulted ceilings, and into their cross-shape sanctuaries. Stained into the windows and carved into the stones is the history of God meeting with His people. These places of praise stand anachronistic to the world around them, microcosms of artistic evangelism, dislodged from space and time.

Last year, I knelt in a Belgian cathedral founded in 1147 A.D. encompassed by crumbling rocks and the clear blue sky above and I was surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses rippling out in waves the message of Jesus across the globe for a thousand years (Hebrews 12.1). In its wings, men and women knelt, prayed, and sought the presence of the Lord knowing that He had something better for them than even the greatest heroes of faith had experienced (Hebrews 11.32-40)! In that place they met with God, redeemed in the blood of Jesus and transformed in the power of His Spirit.

How could we stand in a place like that and not worship God? Can you hear the hymn of Bernard de Clairvaux, “What language shall I borrow to thank You, dearest friend, for this Your dying sorrow, Your compassion without end? O make me Yours forever. And Lord, should I begin to faint let me never, never outlive my love for You.” The empty cathedrals of Europe are echoing his refrain. Windows and walls overwhelmed with the images of Christ but the people have all departed. Who will go and bring them in?

We stand saturated in prismatic light flooding through the redemptive stories displayed, but are we washed in the transformational truth they convey? Do we still come to the walls of these cathedrals or their message rooted in Scripture with arms raised and voices singing, “Praise the Lord!” and “Let it be!”? Do we see the angels in the architecture?

As a child I remember hearing Africa’s influence on Paul Simon. It was like he stepped into my life and gave music and lyrics to my third culture experience. In one Graceland song he wrote:

A man walks down the street.

It's a street in a strange world,

Maybe it's the Third World,

Maybe it's his first time around.

He doesn't speak the language.

He holds no currency.

He is a foreign man.

He is surrounded by the sound,

The sound,

Cattle in the marketplace,

Scatterlings and orphanages.

He looks around and around,

He sees angels in the architecture

Spinning in infinity

He says Amen! and Hallelujah!

In that simple song, Simon translated all the grandeur of the colossal cathedrals into the language of my youth, the rhythms of the market and the colors of my world. With each improvised chord, every syncopated beat, Christ creates space to sing Amen! and Hallelujah!

Every cathedral, every church, every house is built by someone, yet the true builder of all things is God (Hebrews 3.3). Moses met with God in a tent, and the Spirit of God would descend as a pillar of cloud calling all the people to rise up and worship (Exodus 33.9-10). Joash met with God in his childhood spent hidden within the walls of Solomon’s Temple and later led his people in repairing their house of worship (2 Kings 11.3; 12.6-16). Lydia met with God beside a river, then opened her home to all the followers of Jesus in Philippi creating the first church in Europe (Acts 16:11-15, 40).

Where did you first meet with God? Who created space for you to meet with Jesus? Are you willing to invite others into that sacred space? Are you ready to go out as God’s people, living stones in His eternal cathedral (Hebrews 3.6, 1 Peter 2.5), creating simple places of true communion with our Creator among the scatterlings and orphanages as you sing, “Let it be!” and “Hallelujah!”? Are you ready to be the personal link from the local church to the unreached?

If so, let’s go.

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touchstones in the temple

I stood there, a massive hewn rock adorned with a woven cross, where a world-shaping building once stood in 1810. A church once remembered as “the Antioch of the Western Hemisphere” where men and women, like Adoniram and Ann Judson, were sent out with the gospel into the nations.

I stood there staring at this monolith, this chiseled stone, a short walk away from Northpoint Bible College in Haverhill, Massachusetts where I was readying myself to speak to a new generation of men and women preparing for ministry today. The proximity was not lost on me. Near this rock Adoniram Judson, a hero of mine, had walked and talked. He shared his passion for Jesus and his calling to reach the unreached. Young, headstrong and adventurous, Judson planted himself firmly in his calling and set his life like a flint against the countless challenges he would face over his life in missions (Isaiah 50.7).

I wonder if that 22 year-old Judson could have even begun to know the suffering he would endure, the trials he would face, the struggles he would fight through in obedience to his calling. Adoniram and Ann would endure the testing of their souls as they pursued Christ’s presence among the lost. They stood as their children died of disease. They knelt as Adoniram was imprisoned during a time of bloody war. And after Adonriam was released from prison he laid by her grave when Ann’s young body failed.

Every blow, every crippling defeat was like a touchstone scouring their souls. Every trial was a new invitation to go home, to give up, to retreat. The touchstones of trial and tribulation are often constant companions to missionaries in distant lands. They endure the scraping of troubles as they cement themselves, living stones, set in far off places.

Too often we collapse at the grating feeling of those touchstones in our lives of suffering and trial. The pain is too great and we cry out for mercy while the greater gift of rejoicing in our suffering, as we fill up within our flesh the full measure of Christ’s afflictions for the lost, sits within of our reach (Colossians 1.24). Can we begin to convince ourselves that the greatest suffering is not found in the temporary casing of our redeemed souls but the eternal damnations of those hopelessly lost without Christ?

More often it is the comforts of this world, even the successes we find in ministry, that are the breeding ground of failure. In our comfort there are no challenging touchstones running against our lives exposing strengths and weaknesses, no shavings revealing the gold beneath the skin.

Right now, a new generation is poised to pick up the mantle of missionary zeal once worn by the saints of old; those pioneers who ventured into the bush and emerged body-worn but souls-at-ease beside new brothers and sisters in Christ. Their wrinkles reveal the gold of their sacrifice to see men, women and children freed from spiritual bondage; their spilt blood is the seed of new churches (Romans 15.20).

In 200 hundred years from now may there be a new stone laid next to the first, a remembrance stone, a monument to those young men and women who counted the cost, settled their eyes on Jesus as they held shame and suffering in contempt, and carried the cross to be a personal link from the local church to the unreached (Hebrews 12.2).

touching fire

A few weeks ago I was standing on the rooftop of our church along the northern shore of Dakar. Our Sunday morning celebration was minutes away from beginning and I went up to inspect the construction of our children’s area underneath a veranda. My eyes were drawn by the deep blue of the ocean peaking through black crisscrossing electrical wires strung between beige concrete buildings and ramshackle constructions along a dirt alley.

I walked closer to the edge and looked down as hundreds of people moved up and down, left and right; men, women and children busy in the meandering tasks of morning. I was stirred that for every hundred faces and frames moving along the roads, ninety six of them have never heard the gospel. My heart began to cry out in intercession that our church would be planted firmly in the heart of this community and bring many unreached nations to Jesus.

Looking down I noticed two small boys, dressed in blue standing on our sandy stoop, peering in as the people gathered to worship. As the boys looked in through our open door I prayed. I prayed for us, that we would be living expressions of God’s love in their lives. I prayed them, that they would come to know Jesus and His kingdom that cannot be shaken.

All of a sudden the pierce sound of a woman shouted at the boys. Laden with a baby woven to her back in a bright colored wrap was a woman who had been watching the two boys intrigued by our presence. She shouted from across the street at the boys as if they were in danger of being hit by a car. “Careful!” she yelled as if they were playing with fire, a match in one hand and a spraying aerosol can in the other. “Careful!” And flailed her arms to shoo them away from the flames.

It all happened so quickly. The boys turning toward her bewildered and then ever so slowly walking away from our open door. As they retreated toward the street the woman continued to glance back to ensure their safety. I was left standing there, alone; the rooftop witness of a drive-by quelling. That woman’s voice echoing in my ears her warning, as if we were ablaze, the building spitting flames, our lives on fire.

But the more I reflect on that event the more she’s right! We are on fire. We serve a God who is an all consuming fire (Heb. 12.19). And unlike the people of Israel we are not warned from coming near His presence (Ex. 19.21). The Holy Spirit of the living God has fallen upon us like fire from heaven and the smoke of His presence raises up from our church like smoke from a kiln, like smoke from an unquenchable fire, like a smoke signal to the nations.

We have access to the very presence of the Sovereign God, we have access through our Lord and Savior Jesus who has placed His blazing Spirit within us. So, as the writer of Hebrews put it “let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire,” and the nations are watching.