Zip-Lock Spirituality

A backpack full of essentials is a burden most wilderness hikers will gladly bear. Okay, perhaps the word “bear” was poor choice.

When I pack a backpack, about one ounce of that forty-pound burden is likely to be zip-lock bags. As one sets out on the trail, these bags serve to separate breakfasts from lunches and dinners. Others contain lotions, pills, Band-Aids, plastic spoons, and tooth-care products. If a lotion container cracks or spills, the zip-lock bag contains the mess from the surrounding stuff.

After meals are enjoyed (and they often taste better on a wild untamed trail), those zippy bags are still useful. They separate trash, dirty socks and interesting items found on the trail from the rest of your gear. Yes, good hikers carry out their trash.

Warning: Plastic bags cannot always protect food from a bear’s keen nose, especially used and open bags. But used properly, they can help contain tempting aromas.

Zip-lock bags testify that a good trailblazer is also a good planner. He or she only brings what is necessary and protects the perishables so they can fulfill their intended functions. Packers must set priorities and make wise choices.

The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy about distinguishing articles for noble and ignoble purposes. He said, “If a man cleanses himself from the latter [ignoble purposes], he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” (2 Timothy 2:21).

It’s an apostolic analogy, asking the reader to identify with articles (or vessels) in a house. Our analogy here simply points to a backpack. As Christians, we aim to be useful to God for His noble purposes.

When you become and instrument for God, you take on His purposes. Being fit for God’s backpack means being distinguished from whatever is intended for dishonorable purposes. Paul was clear: “Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” (vs. 22).

This is what it means to be holy (literally, set apart). Holiness calls for a purposeful separation from dishonorable “vessels” so we can be useful to God. God’s backpack is not a random mess. He is too good a planner for that. He has a purpose for each article, even you and me. Our task is to remain pure and prepared, set apart for His use.

In another letter, Paul put it this way: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” (Romans 12:1).

Thinking this through is sobering to the soul. If you remain devoted to dishonorable purposes, you may not make His backpack. His choices are eternally purposeful.
Paul Lockwood
On a wilderness trek I once made in California, one of my companions (whose name happened to be Paul) carried a small Bible in a zip-lock bag. It remained free of sweat, dust, and moisture, and it was always ready for use. Thanks to my friend Paul, we had some great campfire devotions and discussions. Like food, God’s Word always tastes better than expected on untamed mountain trails.

A City on a Hill

In the best Farwell Address by an American President since George Washington, on January 11, 1989, President Ronald Reagan admonished us to teach American history to our children, saying, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” Then he cast his enduring vision of America as that “shining city upon a hill,” a phrase first used by Jesus and first applied to America by John Winthrop in 1630.

The Man:

John Winthrop (1587-1649) was married at age seventeen. He and his wife Mary had six children and John studied hard to become a lawyer and wealthy landowner. After ten years together, Mary suddenly died. John remarried, but lost his second wife on their first anniversary. His third wife, Margaret, was famous for her great beauty, grace and faith. His love letters testify to a warm covenant of love that intertwined a mutual faith with passionate companionship.

At forty-two, Winthrop worried about the spiritual welfare of his children and country. From Puritan stock, he saw his life within a “covenant” framework. He felt his homeland had broken their covenant with God and it was time to start over. Like many Puritans, he saw America as an opportunity for a new start. Winthrop became one of 20,000 who came to America between 1620 and 1640.

The Sermon:

On April 7, 1630, Winthrop delivered his legacy sermon on board a ship full of adventurous Puritans prepared to sail from Old England to New England (or from darkness to light). Winthrop sold his lands and possessions to head west across the Atlantic. His heart’s vision was that of God’s children fleeing a repressive realm to cross the “Red Sea” and climb that proverbial hill, spoken of by Jesus, where God’s light could shine forth to call the world into a covenant of joy and justice.

His watershed 1630 sermon was titled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” His text: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14). Winthrop called for his hearers to lose their spiritual shackles and together escape the coming judgment on England. He wanted to help his fellow colonists forge a model community in the New World, a light at the end of the wicked tunnel in which he thought world was stuck. This called for an earnest sense of vocation and a willingness to work hard. After all, dirty hands and a clean heart made an ideal Puritan. Winthrop laid out the cause and commission of God’s covenant and warned of the wrath of God upon them should they breach that covenant. He preached:

    We have hereupon besought Him of favor and blessing. Now if the Lord shall please to hear us, and bring us in peace to the place we desire, then hath He ratified this covenant and sealed our commission, and will expect a strict performance of the articles contained in it.

John Winthrop 2
He was just warming up.

    For we must consider that we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work… and so cause Him to withdraw His present help, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.

Winthrop’s audience was previously unacquainted. Yet, they were about to launch into a life wherein their survival would swing on the strength of their bond of unity under God. Above all, his sermon was a clarion call to Christian unity:

    For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

Winthrop understood Jesus’ conviction that the unity of God’s people is a powerful witness to the world. His “city on a hill” was no utopia–just a light. His audience knew that great hardships lie ahead. Christian unity was no more feasible then than it is today. Nevertheless, Winthrop issued the call, paid the price and set his sail.

A Blessing:

In one of Ronald Reagan’s last major addresses, he offered the following benediction to the nation he loved:

    [May] every dawn be a new beginning for America and every evening bring us closer to that shining city on a hill. (Ronald Reagan, Speech to the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas, August 17, 1992).

Regan’s blessing may not be a reality today, but the prayer endures.

Stop Stereotyping!

Jesus is cool. Everybody likes Him, including pop-culture icons:

  • I don’t think there is anything wrong with the teachings of Jesus, but I am suspicious of organized religion. (Madonna, entertainer, b. 1958).
  • I’m a big fan of Jesus. But I’m not a big fan of those who work for him. (Bill Mahr, comedian and critic, b. 1956).

Evangelical Christian author Dan Kimball wrote a book on Millennials titled, They Like Jesus But Not the Church. Kimball likes Jesus too, but he added, “I probably would not like Christians if I weren’t one.”

How “cool.”

A self-proclaimed “rogue pastor” named John Pavlovitz joined in with the critical chorus when he blogged, “Dear Church… Your love doesn’t look like love.” He wants to be seen as pro-love but not pro-church. He added, “From what we know about Jesus, we think he looks like love. The unfortunate thing is, you don’t look much like him.”


Blogger Rachel Held Evens used the same tactic to stereotype Jesus’ church in an article titled “Why Millennials are leaving the Church.” She declared, “We are not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”


As a church-goer for six decades, I have seen a few flawed Christians up close and personal. I have been one myself. I have been hurt by a few and I have hurt a few. Still, the harsh stereotypes of the cool critics above are profoundly unkind and unfair.

The most loving, kind, brave, intelligent, compassionate, graceful, humble, giving, and unbigoted people I know are church-loving Christians. All my life I have seen Jesus’ church bring the love of Christ to a hurting world and bring family to those who have none. She is the bride of Christ and nothing else on earth compares to her. But you must decide for yourself.

Surveys find that those who claim to be born-again have the same divorce rates as the larger population. However, surveys that go further and ask if respondents actually attend church regularly find that church attenders have much lower divorce rates. That’s a meaningful distinction. It puts church in a more positive light than her critics seem willing to consider.

Fair-minded people do not negatively stereotype groups of people based on race, class, history, or gender. Yet, many today are proud to stereotype Jesus’ church based on surveys, polls, presumptions, and past hurts. The more unkind the criticism, the more noble the basher feels—simply because they began with a claim to like Jesus.

I don’t think Jesus is amused.

Church loving Christians welcome honest constructive criticism from inside and out. We want all our flaws and problems identified and dealt with objectively in a climate of love. Yes, we do! It is the stereotyping that we oppose. Going public with a broad-brush to heap scorn on Jesus’ church or “organized religion” seems more abusive than constructive.

If you belong to Jesus, you belong to His family. Support her. Love her. Defend her. But don’t worship her. Worship God!