I’ve been pondering a lot lately about what it means to live a life of faith. In my last blog post I sort of introduced that thought in saying that I believe that living a life of faith has to mean more than what we currently see of the average American Christian; including and “especially” myself. I mentioned this in so many words, piggybacking on the concept of what it means to live life “on the back 9” in response to the rite of passage of me becoming the big “50” last week. Although perhaps my title proposed to solve what that means, yet to be sure it really only posed other questions rather than clear-cut answers, and this continuation of that deliberation will surely be no different in that regard. In fact, not only do we not have enough time for serious exposition and commentary of this important and lofty idea of what it means to life the life of faith in an American context for a blog post, but quite frankly, answering the questions oneself on our individual journeys with the Master is more important than any prescribed “5 steps to living a life of faith” that I could prescribe, or that many of us increasingly fall for. The reality is sometimes the devil is in the details, and the details for all of us in living actual lives of faith is often times in feebly strapping a hold and going along for the ride that the Spirit will take us that will be many times very much “unlike” our brothers and sisters that surround us. As the purpose of my post will be to suggest, the success paradigm of who we are as Americans culturally, and what has conversely been projected onto American Christianity and ministry, I believe is to err greatly as to what “real” faith and victory in the Kingdom of God really is! In fact, out the outset, I would submit that oftentimes the word “success” is the fly in the ointment if we are to understand all that Jesus wants us to know about following him on the narrow path.
As I mentioned, these reflections have invaded my thoughts and dreams lately and has caused no shortage of tossing and turning into sleepless nights, only to rise to the reality that this life of genuine faith I ruminate about is the very thing that escapes my own grasp as a Christian. Though I might propose as a protection mechanism to talk about many ways in which I have portrayed a life faith, the fact is that of late I’m amazed at how much I talk about this life of faith, yet fail just about every test thus proving that my exhaustive reading of the class notes has not effected what it is to actually look like in my own life. This is especially true in terms of how I react to the reality that is my life, which is to be oftentimes more cruciform than successful, if I am to live the life of a Christian in some way close to a New Testament definition.
For instance, just two years ago I came off of about a 6-year extremely difficult financial tsunami that I truly thought would never end. And of course for Christians in America, finances are the primary form of suffering that we believe are a result of everything from simply sucking as a human, to not working hard enough, having enough education or ingenuity, or from flat out disobedience to God himself who surely helps those who help themselves! This concept is ingrained in us to the bloody core to the point that very rarely can we see any value in our brief or even extenuated moments of poverty and failure. From everything from securing a steady and lucrative job, thriving in our own business venture, having a smoking-hot marriage or relationship, to having very compliant and equally successful children and ongoing progeny, or to our evaluation of our life as a whole; it all stems from a success paradigm that indeed “is” who we are as Americans. And quite frankly, to be a loser is the epitome of a very “non-American” thing to do from who we are as a people, a nation and how we look to the rest of the world. This of course affects us politically as to whether we are on the right or the left or simply a messed up version of both. It affects us physically in how ourselves and others evaluate our value as being worthy of a second glance as we walk down the street, or as a derogatory reminder that we need to work out more, eat less and take fat-sucking pills that give us the six-pack abs that will be the envy of the beach the next summer season. In fact, everything that occupies our day from the time our feet hit the ground and the first cup of coffee that hits our lips, to the time our weary bodies hit the longed for bed is consumed with being a winner. We’re frenzied with being successful, having more money than the month, multiple streams of income, successful lives, successful ventures, leisure by the sea; and as echoed in our story books, life lived “happily ever after”–and oh by the way…very, very successful! Of course I’ve really just only touched the surface as to what success and winning means to us as Americans and the human race perhaps, but the real focus of my talk today is how that very same romanticism has indeed hijacked the church and Christian ministry, and likewise how it has wrongly defined what it means to be people of faith.
But before I deal with that issue, by way of reintroduction, let me first get back to my non-success story. As I said earlier, I came off of a 6-year financial tsunami that I truly thought I would never recover from. I then was fortunate enough to have a couple of really good years that miraculously at least got me back on the food chain somewhere equal to perhaps whale poop! Nonetheless, after literally losing everything that my American peers would equate to a successful life, in the last two years I was at least able to recover my home (perhaps a curse more than a blessing), and get out from under the overwhelming sense of not being able to breathe that only most poor people know anything about. Fast forward to today at 50, though I am still employed I am starting all over with no savings, in a new and perhaps chaotic job, an insecure career, college-age children who still have needs, the natural cycle of degenerative bodies and no longer being “the man”, life-altering decisions demanding to be made correctly on the horizon; and a plethora of other things that have effected my sleep quite regularly lately. Though positively I do have a pretty good resume, the benefit of having secured a great education, a beautiful wife and family behind me sink or swim; as well as the prospect of another day to make things better, the truth is–I’m not getting any younger or better looking! In addition, I’m getting somewhat weary of chasing the American dream but don’t seem to have any choice as to whether I should chase it or not. I have also given quite frankly till it hurts, as those who know me can attest to, and essentially at 50 I’m going nowhere pretty fast if you evaluate it by American standards.
Oh and one more thing, I haven’t been successful in ministry either. The truth is though I’ve always prided myself as being a great orator and speaker in the pulpit of Christian ministry, you wouldn’t’ know it by those knocking down my doors to invite me to lead them in the ways of God anytime soon. And to be sure it’s partly my fault. I have always been a rebel with a cause and the cause that has taken precedence as far as Christian ministry has put me as a mini Martin Luther with no Prince Frederick the III of Saxony to keep the fires from burning me at the ecclesiastical stake. The result has led me to being somewhat ecumenical as well as an evangelical critic inside the bible belt of the South with no country (denomination) to give me roots and Christian ministry job security–a path I admittedly chose as my own. And though I’ve tried to get back in Christian ministry quite frankly with no real agenda other than to serve and utilize my gifts and get people to think about all the reform needed within American Christianity, I typically have not won many battles, secured many raving fans nor have been very “successful” in ministry at all. In fact the only two full-time churches I pastored throughout my career resulted in them asking me to leave and me leaving of my own accord and Ichabod being figuratively written on the church doors with well meaning Christian pillars reminding me that at the end of the day it was probably all my fault. To add to that, I dreamt of planting a church for years, yet due to my early career stance of trying to keep a secure Christian job (which I sucked at) I bypassed that dream, and yet just a year ago decided to take the “you can do it” plunge. The result so far: you guessed it—abysmal failure by even American Christian standards.
Now I am surrounded and know of many Christian ministry comrades who have been “successful” and my hat is off to them. In fact in America there is no argument like success. And as a result, those comrades might even be the ones that would tell you that perhaps I’m writing about this today because I have an axe to grind, or perhaps this is a mere process of catharsis to make me feel better about my ministry disasters. Perhaps they would say it’s a way to get my point across and get people to take notice, or merely a sign of my unwillingness to submit to the church and recant of my rebellious ways so help me God! The truth is however, after some sort of all of those things perhaps being true to some degree at various points in the past, I write this more out of sadness than anger, and as an honest way to understand my own flirtation with the success paradigm and it’s daily grip on how I evaluate my success as a Christian against the roaring crowd of successful naysayers who tell me the proof is in the results whether it be life or ministry. And consequently, if that is the case, then you should disregard anything I’m about to say and pick up the latest “Six steps to this” or “7 habits to that” available anywhere you desire to look at Christian bookstores everywhere. Or, if you are a brave soul and perhaps a sucker for punishment, or just plain curious to know whether or not I know anything of which I speak that could be of some help on your Christian journey then indeed stick along for the ride. I’ll conclude my thoughts tomorrow with Part II.