Thursday, August 4, 2011


Part 1-The Illustration

This is another illustration of how our personal universe is limited and how we often are perfectly happy to never know what we are missing.  This complacent, status-quo protectionist attitude is not only detrimental to our own spiritual development, but also to that of our mission.

When I was in high school (yes, back when dinosaur eggs were sold in grocery stores), I would occasionally go “downtown” to my father’s business office.  My father had a fish aquarium in his office – about 15 gallons – with the usual gravel, fluorescent light, heater, some plants, a snail, and a filter. 

All the fish in the tank were inexpensive guppies.  Guppies are “live-bearers,” meaning that instead of laying eggs on plants, etc. to hatch, the eggs hatch inside the female such that very small baby fish are expelled that are immediately swimming around and having to “fend for themselves.”  Those baby fish that survive grow pretty quickly to adult size.

The filter in the tank was one of those with the angel hair and the activated charcoal and with bubbling air coming from a little air pump.  The bubbling action would help circulate the water for oxygenation and also created a decreased pressure in the bottom of the filter.  This caused water to be pulled through the slits in the filter top, through the angel hair, across the charcoal, and out the bottom, with sediments and debris having been filtered out.  These types of filters did a good job, but that meant they would need to be cleaned periodically or else they would get pretty dirty.  The filter in my father’s fish tank looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time.

One day I finally asked, “Why don’t you clean that filter?”  To which, my father replied, “I can’t.  There’s a fish in there.”

I looked closely, trying to see past the algae coating the filter walls, and, sure enough, there was a fish swimming around inside the filter, in the space between the filter top and the collapsed gross angel hair.  I asked the obvious question, “Why don’t you let him out?”

To which my father replied, “Why?  He’s spent his whole life in there.  When he was small, he was sucked into the filter, and he grew up in there.  Now he’s too large to swim back out through the slits in the filter top.  So, he just stays in there.”  I must have had an incredulous look, because my father continued, “Look at him swimming around in there.  He’s perfectly happy.  He doesn’t want to get out.”

I looked at the fish doing his guppy-thing, swimming about and “making his rounds” like all the others.  He certainly had enough to eat, and, although the quality might be considered questionable, he never knew the difference.  He didn’t look unhappy, although I didn’t know what a happy guppy should look like. 

My father then finished addressing my concerns by saying, “He probably wouldn’t know what to do if he did get out.  All he’s ever known has been inside that filter.  He’s been protected his whole life.  He probably wouldn’t know how to socialize with the other fish.  They might pick on him.  It’s in his best interest to stay right where he is.”

The lessons from that fish in the filter were not lost on me.  That fish never got out of the limited environment he grew up in.  There was a vast aquarium out there, and he never knew about it.  And even more, he never knew that he didn’t know about it.  And he was perfectly happy to not know.  He never knew what he had missed because he never got out of his protected, finite, limited mini-universe.  His basic needs were met, but nothing more.  His sights were set low, but he had no way of knowing that, because he had remained trapped by some prior fateful event.

I have wondered many times since, in what areas of my life could I be trapped inside an aquarium filter, missing spiritual opportunities because of my continued self-limiting choices?  Could I become so used to my comfortable surroundings and beliefs that I am content to swim around within the boundaries of the filter walls, never aware that there is a whole universe out there that I will never discover?

In what ways do we limit ourselves?  In what ways does the church limit itself, preventing itself from growing into the fullness of Christ as a unified body?

 Part 2-Why can’t we just resolve to get ourselves out?

Maybe we don't want to.  Could we grow up inside a vast 15 gallon universe and never knowing anything about it, or even that it exists, because of being trapped in an aquarium filter?  How vast could this universe be?

Think of the realms in which we live, the expanse of the creation that was from the mind of God, and the spiritual realm, of which we know almost nothing and struggle to understand what little we do know.  Read passages about the Spirit of God in creation, the heavenly realms, everything conforming with God’s will, the great power and strength of God available to us, able to do incredibly more than we ask or imagine, battle in the spiritual realms, the Spirit searching the mind of God and consider how vast the spiritual realm must be (Gen 1:1-2, Eph. 1:3-12, 1:17-23, 2:6, 3:8-11, 4:23-24, 6:12; Col 1:15-17, 2:2, 2:9; 1 Cor. 2:10-13; 2 Cor. 3;17-18, 2 Cor. 4:18; and many more).

There’s a big, big aquarium out there.  Is this fearsome territory to tread?  Are we like the (modified) scene in the original Star Wars when Luke said he had to face Darth Vader -- ?

Luke:     “I’m not afraid.”

Yoda:     “You…will be.  You … will be.”

Luke:     “Uhhh, on second thought….. I ....I … think I’ll just stay inside my little filter.”

Or, could we be like the title of the book that J.B. Phillips didn’t write, “Your Filter Is Too Small.”

Sometimes a larger aquarium would have two filters, separated in each back corner (like across the street corner from each other like a Walgreens and a CVS).  Let’s say that these two filters represent two denominations.  Each filter has fish trapped inside, but the fish inside one filter would never associate with the likes of those fish in that other filter.  Each fish group has different doctrinal beliefs, and neither group would consider accepting the other group’s doctrine, and certainly neither would ever extend the filtered fin of fellowship to the other. 

Then one day they realized that the same water passed through both filters and it was the same water that sustained both fish groups.  The groups agreed on a name – it was “the living water.”  Each group made a united swim toward the filter lid, hit it at the same time, and knocked the filter up on one corner.  When they escaped from their respective filters, they found that their common bond in the living water far surpassed any differences they might have had.  Both groups gained an entire universe in which to explore and gain knowledge.  And the oxygen tension was higher around the plants, so they lived better and grew even more.

Is searching risky?  Why?  Do we fear that we might find a lot more than we expected?  Could what we find present an inconvenience or in some way mess up our lifestyle?  Do we fear discovering something that might challenge our traditional teachings, our doctrine, or even our salvation - if it has been built on the biblical interpretations of a tribal filter committee?

Why can’t the body be united because of Christ, instead of being separated because of individual doctrinal interpretations about Christ or opinions on how to get to Christ - preliminary maneuvers that only we do right?

If the members of the body are allowing themselves to be kept in separate little aquarium filters, what (other than ignorance or misinformation) is preventing the members from changing their focus to the head of the church, Jesus Christ, and releasing themselves from the bondage of the filter?  Jesus didn't say, "In my Father's house are many filters, one reserved for each of you." 

What would we risk?  Losing a competitive edge that is a part of the old nature that needs to be taken off and removed, anyway?  What would we gain?  Growing into the fullness of Jesus Christ and becoming like God, which is the foreordained destiny of the new creation (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

It is the grace of God that frees us from sin and from the bondage of the filter.  You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

God's grace is freely given, but we must choose to accept God’s grace.  God’s grace continues after initial salvation (justification).  God's grace works for the church, too.  The grace of God can free the church from the bondage of division, allowing the church to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).  Do we in the church ever choose to keep our bondage imposed by division rather than accepting God’s grace to the freedom of the Spirit?

We will individually grow to be like God as the one church grows to be like God, when the members, in community, practice love, peace, and unity toward one another.


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