When I was growing up we had an aquarium full of tropical fish. My mom knew what species each one was, and I remember looking in reference books where they originally came from – their origins sounded exotic and I wondered about their home waters.
At another time we had ‘sea monkeys’ – a product of the 1960′s and early ’70′s that was very popular for a time. I think sea monkeys were brine shrimp that hatched once placed in water, but whoever marketed them as ‘sea monkeys’ must have made a fortune because nearly every house with kids bought some at one time or another. Later mom would have a salt water tank and had several sea horses and other sea life.
My first snorkeling experience was at a gravel pit turned public swim area called France Park. Everyone
called France Park ‘The cliffs’, because the big challenge was to climb over the fence boundary and jump off the cliffs which ranged from a few feet to near 100. While snorkeling there I saw fish for the first time in their natural environment, and I was amazed and felt sorry for the ones in our little tank at home.
Then I went snorkeling in the Florida Keys among coral reefs when I was about 17 and saw cousins of those aquarium fish in the wild. WOW! The colors and their interactions with each other in their natural environment was hugely impacting to me - the life those fish led compared to the fish in our tank was very different though each swam in water, found food, and went about life. Over the years I’ve snorkeled again in the Keys, the US Virgin Islands, and Hawaii, and each time I come away amazed at the Lord’s imagination and creativity – and a touch of sorrow for all aquarium fish everywhere.
The church aquarium
Last week I shared my spiritual upbringing in the Episcopal church on Sunday mornings, as well as my involvement in Saturday night prayer meetings attended by other suddenly Spirit-filled Episcopalians, Catholics, Baptists and Methodists in the ‘charismatic renewal’ time of the 1970′s.
To me, the Episcopal church was the little aquarium tank at home and my Saturday night prayer meeting was like the open ocean. I wondered if the fish trapped inside wondered what life could be like in a world not needing all that life support equipment. What if they could swim in a place where no water pump or filter was needed? What if they didn’t need a bubble blower to put air into the water? What if they didn’t need The Giant Hand to drop flakes of food to them each morning? What if there was no liturgy, no schedule, no altar or even building called ‘church’?
Love God, but…
Some, like my mom, loved the history, ritual, and predictability of the Episcopal church. Routine meant safe, and she wouldn’t dream of going outside that ‘aquarium’. She loved the Lord, but remained a smoking, drinking, tongue talking Episcopalian the rest of her life. I inherited her Bibles when she died, and found she wrote in the margins of her Bibles just like I do – and her notes were deep thoughts and revelation - much to my surprise. But she loved that fish tank called St. Andrew’s Episcopal church. Good for her and for any who feel the Lord has them in a traditional church as my mom did. I find no fault.
Her traditional church affirmed her in those ways. After the divorce she needed the routine of each Sunday, the stability, the history and feeling she was part of something old in which each ritual was a reflection of some deeper spiritual truth. But swimming in the spiritual open ocean affirms a person in a different way. Not in ritual and routine, choirs and music, but in freedom to go where God wants to go in a meeting, to participate, to be connected to people. And so for me, I kept thinking about those fish…
What if they could swim free among the coral reefs? Yes, I’d been ruined, I had not only seen what it was like outside the spiritual tank, I had swum in the open ocean!
All that I’ve said thus far, has come after years of reflection and life experience. At the time, I just kept my thoughts to myself out of respect for my mom, but my thoughts were amazingly close to that of a TV character in the popular (US) sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. The character named Amy says to her friend Sheldon: “I don’t object to the concept of a deity, but I’m baffled by the notion of one that takes attendance.” To which Sheldon replies; “Then you might want to avoid east Texas.” LOL
Just straight talk
I had similar thoughts, boiled down to ‘Does Jesus really need all the trappings of church for us to be able to worship and fellowship with Him?, but I didn’t utter them. I did become determined not to be caught up in the things man-made, for though they were at one time intended to lead people to God, they had to me become obstacles and even walls erected that prevented me from knowing Him any other way than the priest, pastor, or teacher wanted me to know Him.
But, we accept the reality of the world which we are presented. We may wonder if the building and order and hype was invented by God as a means to allow us to approach Him or not, but we sit on those thoughts for years. We accept this is the way it is, wonder briefly in our deepest yearnings, ‘What if?’, and then return to the same routine, growing ever more restless over time.
Like I said, I never fit in – those are ‘rebellious’ thoughts
In 1978 I went to work for Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club (TV ministry) in and around Charlotte, North Carolina. I was a Park Ranger at the Heritage USA site under development. Park Ranger sounds so official. But in a rapidly growing ministry that was pressured to open Heritage USA the summer of 1978, it meant I landscaped, showed little old ladies where the porta-potties were, and played host and guide.
It was the first year Barb and I were married, and it was a good experience, but once again, we didn’t fit in. While the TV shows revolved around classic southern gospel singing and guests who would excite the audience, and Jesus was glorified, it was also big business.
I wondered, ‘If we took away the TV cameras, the lights, the idolizing of the ‘stars’ that appeared on the show, could Jesus be seen in all this?’ Our first year of marriage at the PTL Club was rough financially, rich spiritually, and rich as a young married couple in their 1st year together. We learned, we gleaned, we observed and made mental notes about ministry and life during that time. We learned how not to do ministry, but held to that which was good.
Then in August of 1978, just 4 months into my work at PTL Club, the Father told me He wanted me to go to Rhema the next year. I had barely heard of Rhema, didn’t know anything about it other than it was a Bible school in Tulsa, and so rose from prayer and called my mom.
She just happened to be having lunch with a friend right then, who upon hearing the news that the Father told me to go to Rhema in a year, said this: “In March the Lord told me, ‘I’m going to send John to Rhema in about a year and a half, and I want you to pay his tuition.” She was so excited I had called at the exact moment mom and her just happened to be having lunch. I was amazed at her response. She said, ‘Send me a letter of acceptance and I’ll write a check.’ I did and she did, so in summer of 1979 we drove from North Carolina to Tulsa, not knowing what awaited us.
Rhema was a whole new world, and very exciting in 1979. I learned the integrity of God’s Word – this was in the days before disciples of Kenneth Hagin twisted the Word to their own greed and lusts. It wasn’t yet twisted into ‘name it claim it’ or ‘prosperity gospel’ - I learned God’s Word was the final authority, and the Word and Spirit always agree. I learned to dig into the Word myself and to hear His voice as I studied and thought on the Word and ways of the Father.
But it was what I would call, ‘professional’ Christianity, in Tulsa, the belt buckle of the Bible belt. I was in another aquarium. I wondered what had happened to those Saturday night prayer meetings and the people who went there? I wondered where were my friends from those wonderful Thursday night teen prayer and praise meetings we went to, or the Sunday night meetings where we teens often rotated homes and experienced such moves of the Spirit?
Did we just jump from one aquarium with a certain type of fish into another aquarium with another type of fish? But with work and a new baby and school, the year went by quickly and it was soon time to move to where the Father told Barb and I when we were in college we’d be; Boulder, Colorado. That was May of 1980.
I’m jumping ahead a bit
I don’t intend to take you down my Memory Lane in this series, but I do intend to get you thinking about what you truly long for, and why. You see, for centuries the Jews had worshipped in Jerusalem in a temple, and that’s where God’s presence was.
It really began back in Exodus 19 when the Lord came down on the mountain and gave His Word to Moses. He went from the mountain to the wilderness tabernacle He had instructed Moses to make. Some 400 years later David knew Him as the ‘God who lives between the cherubs’ over the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon built the first temple, and though destroyed and then rebuilt in part or completely through the years, the Temple is where God’s presence was for centuries. That was their aquarium. That’s all they knew.
But then came something that had never been seen before. At Pentecost God moved out of the temple and into human beings. He had confined Himself more or less to the aquarium of the Temple for centuries, but His real goal was to move out of that aquarium and into the open ocean of humanity. His goal was to move into living temples spread all over the earth, thus filling the earth with His glory, Word, and ways.
That is why there is something inside each Christian that rebels a bit at the aquarium and wonders ‘Is there more?’ We ask this because God moved out of the temple (aquarium) 2,000 years ago and into mankind. We are ocean going fish, not designed for the aquarium. And that’s where I’ll pick it up next week.