At a recent Sunday morning house church gathering we considered ‘Vacating the House of Fear.’ This topic was partly inspired by Henri Nouwen’s resonating words quoted in my wife’s facebook: ‘How can we live in the midst of a world marked by fear, hatred and violence, and not be destroyed by it? To live in the world without belonging to the world summarizes the essence of spiritual life. Our true house is not the house of fear but the house of love, where God resides. Through the spiritual life we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love.’
[Henri Nouwen was a 20th century Dutch Roman Catholic priest, Yale and Harvard professor, theologian and author. After many years as an academic he answered God’s call to live and work with the physically and mentally handicapped at L’Arche’s Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada]
To be honest, I have spent most of my three score years and ten camping somewhere between the house of fear and the house of love (we’ll expound these terms in a moment). As a child and teen I felt I could earn acceptance by academic achievement. As a single ‘pastor’ of two congregations over some seven years, I was ragged by the married men as being ‘incomplete.’ In those and subsequent pastorates I worked very hard to ‘grow’ the congregations, and by the grace of God they somehow did. After eleven years in my last pastorate, caught up in the busy-ness of a very societal and mission-minded church I finally burned out, unable to sleep due to hyped adrenaline pumping through my body. With the help of medication and much prayer and a supportive wife, I was able to spend another twelve years in pastoral ministry, surer of my identity and living a more balanced life, having inched a little closer to ‘the house of love.’ Spending the past eleven years in organic house churches has been a huge help in moving more permanently into ‘the house of love.’ With the political and economic uncertainty facing us as a nation at the moment, the future seems most uncertain – however, talking to myself daily about ‘the house of love’ is proving to be very helpful in making that my chosen abode. [BTW, I have it on good authority that some registered church pastors in China are preaching three times a Sunday because their colleagues, in their forties, are exhausted and burnt out! They don’t get a western weekly ‘day off’ to re-charge. Most of their congregations are hierarchical in structure and know almost nothing about NT ‘every member ministry,’ so fundamental to the organic house church ‘structures’ I’ve encountered on my two visits to China]
Being believers and Jesus-followers doesn’t isolate us from the fears most folk face from day to day. Raising children in our postmodern era, financial concerns, the pressures of success and materialism in a hedonistic world, the many stressors of our bullet-train world, ill-health, retirement uncertainties, all these can easily drive us back into ‘the house of fear.’
Many of us, if not most of us, are yet to fully transition to ‘the house of love.’ Yes, that will include our love for God, yet infinitely more so God’s love for us in Christ! In our discussions we considered two main scripture passages:
- Jn. 20:19-23. Jesus is risen from the dead! He appears to Mary Magdalene. V. 19ff, “That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders (note ‘the house of fear). Suddenly Jesus was standing there among them! ‘Peace be with you,’ he said. As he spoke he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side (note). They were filled with joy when they saw the Lord! Again he said, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you'” (NLT). Then he breathed the Holy Spirit on them. The disciples’ ‘house of fear’ is transformed by the risen Jesus and his cross into a ‘house of love,’ which also brings his peace.
- 1 Jn. 4:13-21. John has much to say about ‘Loving One Another’ on the basis of God’s great love for us in Christ (v. 7ff). V. 18ff, ‘Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first’ (NLT). For various reasons, including wrong theology concerning God’s nature (he is forever angry) and our daily circumstances in an upside down world, we easily revert to ‘the house of fear’ and fail to fully occupy Jesus’ ‘house of love.’
What is the secret of staying in ‘the house of love’ or striving to do so?? There are probably many, but I agree with Nouwen that a key-secret is intimacy, i.e. understanding God’s eternal nearness to us in Christ and ‘striving,’ daily, to more permanently stay near to him and live ‘in him.’
I first encountered this truth of intimacy when a young seminarian. We had a thing called ‘sermon class’ which everyone hated but had to endure. Our critics were our fellow-students and our College Principle who cut to the quick and didn’t spare your feelings. My first attempt focused on Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ grave-side Jn. 11:35) – while I didn’t weep afterwards I was miserable for days! My second attempt was Jn. 15:1ff, the parable of ‘Jesus, the true Vine’ – having thoroughly done my homework this time, the reaction was more favourable. God had appointed Israel as the vine to bless all peoples, but the OT describes the nation’s miserable failure at incarnating that reality. Jesus then comes as ‘the true Vine’ to permanently ‘abide’ in his people and they in him (15:4ff): ‘Abide in Me, and I in you… I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing’ (NASB) . In my country most congregations use the NIV, which translates ‘abide’ as ‘remain’ – not good! The KJV, NASB and NRSV all use the word ‘abide,’ the MSG paraphrase is even better: ‘make your home in me.’ Through faith, Jesus ‘makes his home in us.’ He has come to feel welcome, accepted and totally comfortable in us. We in turn have to live as God’s beloved, and be assured that ‘there’s no place like home!’
How do we respond to this? By believing Jesus’ words, being in his presence, making room for him in our decisions and daily life, listening for his voice, being ‘astonished’ at the mystery of the eternal God choosing to live with/within us, living in ‘community’ with fellow-believers who encourage one another in the Lord, etc. I personally find it very useful to keep a very basic prayer diary, detailing matters for thanksgiving, worship, intercession and petition. I recently came across this gem in Phil. 4:6-7, ‘Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus’ (NLT).
God bless us in our journey from ‘the house of fear’ to ‘the house of love!’
PS. If any pastors/church leaders read this blog, I believe from careful biblical study and painful personal experience, that the traditional, institutional church prevents leaders from living steadfastly in ‘the house of love.’ One is made to feel guilty about many things, secretly fear powerful personalities and ‘democrats’ (as opposed to theocrats) in one’s flock, etc. You can feel lonely, with very few to talk to – in fact most of your fellow-clergy are so busy ‘number-counting’ they can’t offer you authentic fellowship when you need it most. Thus I am gladly a supporter of ‘smaller rather than bigger’ organic groups where every-member ministry takes place under the functional headship of Jesus. If you choose to transition, it will cost you everything, but this ‘road less travelled’ (Scott Peck) can make a colossal difference.