The Cure for Rollercoaster Christianity

I’ve been moving at a snail’s pace through John chapter 15 this week, and its’ kind of ironic being that it’s message is on “abiding” or “staying” or “remaining” in Christ. And after all, the majority of this mind-blowing piece of scripture is perhaps the key to consistent navigation on the narrow path called the Christian life, and thus somewhere I need to camp out for a while; and perhaps never leave. Perhaps you’d like to nestle up by the campfire and stay with me for a while.

And you see the reason I’m staying here besides the obvious, is because I think it is where we find the cure for what I like to call “Rollercoaster Christianity”. Now I won’t call that phrase my invention (though I certainly wish I had), but I do believe that most of us have bought a perpetual ticket on this not so amusing ride.   In addition, to the curious observer, perhaps you’ve noticed that most of us have a short attention span for just about everything. Very few of us anymore read like we should, and we want our news and information in short sound bites with all the color and pizazz we can get, or else we’ve moved on to the next quick and cheap thrill. To add to our fluidity in what gets our attention, we have incorporated it into our faith as well. As a result, we have very little stickiness within us, and commitment and stick-to-itiveness through the long haul is dependent on a list of variables that are checkered with conditions that most of the time are keeping us from experiencing anything “next-level” that God may have for us.

Oh No, The American Dream Again

 And to add to this puzzle, most of our conditions and barriers to abiding have to do with our unquenchable quest for something I write an awful lot about: The American Dream. And the reason that I do is because I feel that it plagues us an awful bit more than we want to give it credit for, and in one sense, who can blame us for succumbing to it’s pull. After all, we have been sold on its importance since we were old enough to ponder anything of significance that relates to our life on planet earth. We get little nuggets through various stages of our growth into adulthood, and by the time the final piece of the umbilical cord under our parent’s care has been cut, the dream is now front and center of our lives. And the dream goes something like this: We get a good education, we get a good job or open our own business, we work harder than most, and we live “the good life” until death to us part—though many don’t give much thought to that piece soon enough. Many of us then continue this march and have the good fortune to either amass a good bit of wealth while we are here and begin enjoying some of the dream or even all that it perpetuates much earlier out of the gate. These are the people we then idolize. We read their books on the 5 steps to success at this, or the 7 steps to success at that, and we watch them and we seek to emulate their path in hopes of our American dream that will soon come knocking eventually–if we just work hard enough. This chase of course drives us even more as we have kids. For now the dream has to get much bigger to include not only what utopia we can provide for them here, but what we will leave them when we’re gone. And of course we must then pass on the dream to them as well, and so on, and so on and so on.

Now let me just say that dreaming in and of itself is not a bad thing. In many ways, the God of this world has put dreams in our hearts and minds to not only fulfill us and give us purpose while working on this earth, but also to fulfill the mandate to be good stewards of the earth, and those who make mankind’s stay on this earth a bit more cozy and functional. We are also born in many ways with this sense that we were put here to do something significant, and much of our life is spent seeking to find what this is. The late Mark Twain captured this sentiment when I believe he accurately opined that, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why[1].” I believe much of this seeking and searching is therefore God given and not to be equated with the problem the American version of our dreams proposes to solve for us. For instance, as we discover our identity in Christ and His love for us, as well as His continual reminder that the dream inside us must first of all be in light of the dreams of God for the world and for us, we are then commissioned and are welcome to build from there. And therefore when Jesus says that He is “the way, the truth, and the life”, then the dream for the Christian must be constructed from that premise first and foremost; and when we deter from that, it is then that the dream becomes askew for us. Particularly it becomes lopsided when the quest for perpetual comforts in this life take precedence over the call and quest for the comfort, peace and eternality that can only come from knowing Christ himself: our real answer to life’s “sixty-four dollar question”. And if we are truly seeking for the Jesus missing sometimes in America, then this is something that we should be constantly wrestling with, and hopefully coming down on the right side of that conclusion.

Life As It Is For Most of Us

But then there is the “rubber that meets the road”. For after all, we are only human. And as a result, we must live on this earth and we must have certain things in order to merely survive. It is also natural that we want to enjoy the comforts and pleasures that the Lord has given us for our good. And because we live in America, the possibility of acquiring those comforts more frequently is a titillation that at least seems to be within most of our reach. Having said that, the problem comes in when the seeking after and acquisition of these things have escaped our grasp thus far as we move beyond middle age and look out in an almost full crystal ball that gets misty as we look into the near future. And though we are now currently in our quest to “make America great again”, the truth of the matter is that there is only so much room for the “have’s”, and some of us will have to be some of the “have not’s”. And if we didn’t yet believe it, if we are honest, we are finding it to have a grain of truth sketched already into the canvas of our lives. And we secretly wonder how long this old ball called earth can withstand our quest for more and more prosperity for the bigger, better deal. Equally, we also secretly imagine as we run around this hamster wheel of our life if we might eventually get caught in the cross hairs of its threshold. This alone adds an anxiety to our life that for us as Americans seems to be the Achilles heel that keeps us from the abundant life Jesus said he had to offer. It causes us to dread Mondays, and if we’re not careful, to either fall in love with our beds or succumb to an endless cycle of a liquid and sedative weekend.   We then add to our weightiness that the dream has heaped on us the likes of things like cancer; the loss of loved ones; wayward children; and the endless sound bites of bad news that we are forced to digest as it pushes its way into our smart phones for what seems like a 24/7 wakeup call–all the while skirting by the guy with the sign begging for some of our spare change.

The Minister’s Confession

I can remember years ago when I was a minister, I used to preach to these types of people on any and every given Sunday. I spent most of my week in study, prayer, the visitation of the sick, and attempting to fraternize with and evangelize those lost from the hope or current desire of the gospel. In addition, my time was spent trying to convince people caught up in the American dream to give more and more of their time and money to help in the quest of spreading the good news, and in outreach to the poor all around us. I often grew weary and tired, because I felt that the task was next to impossible. So while I was growing weary and frustrated with the people God had given me to shepherd, I had forgotten that the people he had called me to were just like I myself am today, trying to figure a way out of a rollercoaster Christianity life we know is not God’s desire for us, yet all the while caught up in the midst of our struggle to “make it”, while life is many times dealing out a steady dose of difficulties–sometimes discriminately so. And though I am still a minister at heart, I am now one of those same people, and I consistently feel that perhaps others are frustrated with me, secretly haranguing from afar about my need to “get it together” and “straighten up and fly right”. I find that Job’s friends are never in short supply.

In fact, I also think sometimes well meaning ministers of the gospel have forgotten the daily anguish of the common man. And though their lives are filled with countless demands and struggles like us all, many are caught up also in a bubble of privilege that perhaps they don’t even realize they live in. For in essence, they are paid to be an exemplary Christian so to speak. A mascot we can all get behind and follow. Many, out of their sincerity nonetheless, tell us their own version of the 5 and 7 steps to a successful walk with Jesus. We walk out each Sunday with a new admonition to “simply” do this or to “merely” do that and by Monday the weight of life has already told us that it’s just not in the cards for us, and we fall back in line under the tutelage of our American Dream taskmaster and the path back down the rollercoaster begins. I won’t attempt to give you any real answers today, but I do hope to at least be a peddler of a new hope.

No Easy Answers…But

This is why I’ve recently begun to realize a few things for our brief consideration. First of all, though countless scholarly men and women of the cloth scratch their heads in contemplation of the means of reaching an increasingly antagonistic culture to the gospel, I have resigned to the belief that new methods are not what we lack, and the writing for goodness sakes should have already been on the church wall! Secondly, it is not my belief either that the answer lies in our ability anymore to merely reason our way into the life of the mind and hearts of those who bypass our offer of eternal life; though not to its negation. In fact, as I have contemplated about these very things for most of my life now, both as a once professional clergyman and now as a renegade wandering prophet who walks the life of Christ with a noticeable limp, my conclusion is this: that nothing but the power of God and the Baptism and engulfing of His Spirit in those of us who are called by his name has any remote chance of reorienting our society towards the desire for God and of His Christ. Neither will anything else help us get off the rollercoaster ride of Christianity that we can’t currently seem to escape. And though these are new waters of suppositions for me to traverse in, I am convinced that unless you and I pray continually that God revisit His church with an outpouring not too different than what happened in an upper room over 2000 years ago, you and I are destined for more of the same.

Now to be sure we must continue to abide in the vine of Christ’s love and to surround ourselves with others who are truly seeking to walk the narrow path, and this we must do with reckless abandon. Yet I am reminded of something the late Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones began ranting about years ago that echoes my humble sentiment. His synopsis was extracted from his take on Mark 9 where the disciples could not expel a demon from a boy and Jesus finally has to come in and save the day. Upon expelling the demon, the disciples were somewhat despondent and asked why they could not free the boy from his demonic oppression. Jesus’ answer was that “this kind cannot be driven by anything but prayer” or as Matthew’s gospel states, “prayer and fasting”. Dr. Jones’ interpretation was that the reason we need the baptism of the Spirit is because we now live in a Mark 9 world, and without God’s power through fervent prayer and the Baptism of the Spirit we will continually fail in the ability to live Christ-like lives and to become Christ-like witnesses. His reason: “Because the demon is too deep in the culture”[2]

Some Dylan Theology

As a result of my recent musings, I have begun the voyage of adding several things to my cracked up life. First of all, I am trying to not only pray more in my normal routine of prayer and time in the scriptures, but to also find as many excursions away from the norm of my very predictable life to purposefully get alone with God and cry out to him about these things. Secondly, I have begun saturating my soul with as many books and teachings about the Spirit-filled life as I can get my hands on. And thirdly, I have purposefully put myself in a new and at first uncomfortable terrain of being where people are hoping and praying for these same things in daily practice, and who seek to allow God to move in their everyday lives and give God room to do exactly that in their corporate gatherings. Again, though I am knowingly a man with mere “sea legs” in these things of the Spirit; like Dr. Jones, I am convinced that herein, as unpredictable as the movement of the Spirit is and knowing with zero predictability where its wind will blow in mine and your life, I do however believe that it will not be found in the “sure fire” formulas we have been used to prescribing to ourselves and others ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

In conclusion, I realize most of my conclusions of late are about like “nailing Jell-O to the wall”. I apologize for that. I’ve thrown just about all of my formulas out with the trash a long time ago. But perhaps still like me, you are looking for some gold mine of truth that you can sink your teeth into, because like me you sense something is amiss, and the old ways of business as usual Christianity are no longer working for you, or perhaps they never did. If that is you, I want to simply say that you are not alone, and at the risk of sounding somewhat cliché, let me nonetheless say that Jesus loves you and longs for you to abide and continue on this sometimes very lonely and narrow path. Oh, but one other thing I want you to consider, or rather not forget: Perhaps the answer my friend is actually blowin in the wind, the answer is blowin in the wind!

 

 

Selah

 

[1] “A Quote by Mark Twain.” Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.

[2] Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn., and Christopher Catherwood. The Baptism and Gifts of the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996. Print.

Life Goes On Long After the Thrill of Living is Gone

A Recurrent Theme

 Oh yeah I know, I know. The title at least got you to stop for just a second for a couple of reasons didn’t it? The number one reason is of course because you know me, and so you might be just a little worried as to whether or not I have finally gone off the deep end (a distinct possibility). After all, the blog is about my cracked up life right? And as a result, you might be thinking that perhaps someone should come check on me. After all, depression does run in my family, but also the American family I might add, and I do write about it—a lot. Or at least you can say I’m very “authentic” in that I am indeed an “open book” about what I’m thinking and feeling at any given moment. And by golly, if you’re going to read anyone who claims to actually aspire to be a decent writer and not someone who just compiles information in complete sentences, then real is what you should damn well get!

The second reason that you lingered around perhaps is because well…the great philosopher and crooner John Cougar Mellencamp himself penned these lines years ago in the song Jack and Dianne, and like me, I bet you just loved that song didn’t you? I mean who didn’t? I can remember when I first listened to the song and got past “does his best James Dean” and “dribble off those Bobbie Brooks slacks and let me do as I please” and then got to the chorus; I said “Yea, I get it”, and then just moved on each hundred times I listened in. I then got a little older and it stuck some more, so I gave it a brief meditation or two beyond mere reminiscence and again moved on. Fast forward to the year 2017 at age 52, it’s now kind of my theme song. But let me explain.

Truth Serum

 You know there is one thing I’m learning in life that seems to be more and more undeniable: it’s that most people really don’t like the truth. They don’t like to hear it from you directed toward them to be sure, but they don’t really like to hear your own truth about yourself either–especially if it’s negative in nature. After all it’s the American way you know to keep your “poker face”. We got to be positive all the time, MAKE IT HAPPEN, keep moving forward, and keep “pushing up the hill”. All good stuff to be sure. However, did you ever wonder why it seemed so much more effortless and somewhat natural to say that for most of your life, but then all of a sudden, when you reach middle age and beyond, it becomes MUCH more difficult—that is, if like me you have not yet achieved your part of the ever delusional American Dream. I mean think about it. We all hear the great stories of those who rose from dire straights to get their piece of it, and now they are filling up concert halls, writing New York Times bestsellers, have built multiple streams of income or who are shall we say “financially secure”. Or better yet, perhaps they are just stinking filthy rich. And I’m no hater. Heck no. Man I applaud that stuff. Hell, I even pray for it for myself and for others, and still try to “be all I can be”, take my fat butt to the gym at least 3 times a week, try to watch what I eat at least 85% of the time, know when to say “when”, and even continue to learn and grow as best I can. It’s much harder now to be sure, but there really doesn’t seem to be much alternative quite frankly if we are still going to be residing on planet America.

Buying Into the Dream

However, I can remember when I first started trying to really be single-minded and focused (since I am by nature the ADHD poster child), and started really trying to get a good education, prioritize my plans and goals, and actually tried to organize my life around some sort of mission statement and purpose in search of my own version of an American Dream. I’d read about those who made a bunch of money in business and then used their wealth and influence later on to help the poor or something noble like that and this really motivated me. I worked really hard and aspired to be like this, and I even listened to those I loved tell me I was just the type of guy that could actually make that happen. And I’ll have to say, it’s quite an aphrodisiac, and it got me up everyday to try again and again. Then I hit my forties, and it was like a speed bump that I could see was just ahead. And like good speed bumps should do, it definitely slowed my game down. I began to see my mortality a little more up close and personal, and realized all too well that I was in no way invincible, and in fact was very volatile in a variety of ways that made me quite unsure of my footing in the world. And then 50 came and hit me like a sonic boom! And while I would read stories and hear about all the guys my age who were still in their supposed prime of their masculinity and strength, and who still made their lady swoon and seemed to have life by the proverbial cajones, it became clear to me that my gene pool may not be so kind. For sure, I knew what to do about what I could control (when I felt like it), but the scary part was all the new challenges that began to multiply like Gremlins all around me, that I in fact could not control in the least.

I had even desired to be a spiritual director of sorts: someone who could lead others on the narrow path with Jesus. Someone who could not only point the way, but navigate through it victorious on the other side. Yet it seemed that at least every other day, I had more questions than answers, and the thought of leading others seemed at best a fruitless prospect and perhaps even a laughable notion. I awoke everyday however realizing that even though I sometimes lacked what others needed from my life spiritually, nonetheless I had to keep striving to “make it” (whatever that means) in the natural world: a world that gave me only morsels of its anticipated success, but yet kept constantly the real entree at just an arm’s length.

After all, success inside this American Dream is tricky is it not? It seems that’s what we’re all striving for in America isn’t it? It’s our birthright, and to some they think it’s actually their God-given right. Everything we do is for the purpose of getting ahead, building a nest egg and forever plodding onward in that great quandary called “the pursuit of happiness”, yet most of us are never really finding it. And to be sure there is only so much room at the top. Now to be sure, those with wealth, if their head and heart is in the right place, can have a possible advantage toward this path, even though the Bible tells us that the pathway to heaven for the rich man is filled with all kinds of toils and snares and “eyes of the needle”. Nonetheless, that doesn’t seem to keep any of us who call ourselves followers of the way from desiring it also for ourselves. In fact, we say we’d like both, but again very few of us are competent to juggle the two. In fact, we’re not juggling it very well even in our futile quest for it, and we are indeed finding rightly so that if that elusive pursuit is all there is, then John is right, and the thrill of living is indeed gone.

Time to Get a New Dream

 I think lately that I’ve come to the conclusion that God often allows us to work through this opaque looking glass for a very distinct reason: So we will realize that it is abysmally far from the way, the truth and life that He offers us. In fact, Ted Dekker reminds us in his groundbreaking book The Slumber of Christianity echoed from the wisdom of Solomon himself, that eternity is bound up in the heart of man, and that man’s real reward will be in heaven, NOT on earth. And in fact, he reminds us that this earth will mostly only yield disappointment, especially when this temporal existence becomes our sole preoccupation.[1] And to be truthful here, I must say this is a hard lesson for us to learn. We are by nature habitual creatures that continue to be sidetracked by repetitive quests for the attainment of perishable fools gold rather than the imperishable promise of abundant and even eternal life that we can’t see with our earthly eyes. The reason is because the pursuit of the eternal is not always tangible or palpable in the way that we would have it, or that has been described by those who peddle in gospel particulars on any given Sunday. It is nonetheless real, but it is otherworldly real, and that’s a world we haven’t given much time to exploring in, until often times the natural world stops us dead in our tracks for its abrupt contemplation as the final curtain calls.

And so, the reason Mr. Mellencamp speaks as he does, and why we especially resonate with the song in our later years as to its unadulterated truthfulness, is because we realize that if this is all we now have in our bag of tricks, we are indeed magicians caught with our pants down when it matters most. I for one am now coming to the stark realization, though I would be mocked as credulous by the intelligentsia of our increasingly Brave New World, that when Jesus says that He is the way, the truth and the life, that He was actually serving up real gold for those who would mine for it and make it their primary vocation. Perhaps the man who found treasure in a field no one else knew about and sold everything in order to purchase that field was onto something. And perhaps if you are finding that the thrill of living is indeed gone for you, then like me, perhaps it’s time to liquidate and buy a field.

 

Selah

 

 

[1] Dekker, Ted. The Slumber of Christianity: Awakening a Passion for Heaven on Earth. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 2005. Kindle.

The Light in Christendom is But a Flicker Now: Part II

Hello friends. I left off last week with some thoughts about the concept of Christian exile, and the flicker of light left in the church in perhaps an unexpected tangent: By way of my confession of voting for the enigma which is Donald J. Trump. In fact, after touching on several issues about my ongoing cracked up life in order to get us there, that’s where I ultimately landed; with the overall purpose of getting us to think about exile and the fact that we are most definitely in it, irregardless of who is temporarily in the White House. I tried to do so subtly by interjecting that our vote as Christians was perhaps more out of fear of having to live as exilic people more than anything else. My thesis was that part of the reason that droves of Christians in America voted for the billionaire and chief, is because we are afraid that for the first time in our known history, the Christian value system is becoming extinct both in the American public square, and in the thoughts, minds and overall consciousness of almost everyone we rub shoulders with now. We’ve all felt it, and we secretly know it to be true, but somehow we’ve escaped once more due to an election without having to give it much reflective thought. And I for one believe that this is perhaps the beginning of our undoing.

 

And of course in a sense, all of this that I’m speaking about is not a secret as I also suggested last week. The reason is because we have actually been on this moral spiral downward motion for several decades now. However, in the wake of the last eight years of a liberal administration, when we’ve actually witnessed the last of nationally accepted Christian ethics fall like dominoes before our eyes and then actually become new laws in the realms of the definition of marriage and gender identity to name a few, the Christian masses are almost certain that Armageddon is just in sight. And as I mentioned last week, many middle class voters showed up in mass for Trump on Nov. 8th also due to feeling that they had been long left out of the public discussion that would concern them for so long, and are those who have been by and large left out of what remains of the American Dream. In addition, those same people who espoused to many of the same values we mutually as a nation had once held so dear, no longer saw their values represented in the main stream. To add insult to injury, the values they and their families once believed in have now come full circle in being publicly derided and dismissed as poppycock to the liberal elite in the know. As a result, this is the shape and the state we’re in.

 

My brief purpose today to wrap up some of these sentiments is not to continue on a political pathway however. This is the case not only because I am not an expert in the political arena, but also because I want to focus more on why we in Christendom, as our light slowly fades, really voted in the way that we did. My consensus is that the reason that we voted the way we did is more about fear than actually voting for the best candidate. The truth is that we voted because we are afraid of living for the first time as strangers and aliens in a world where Constantinian-like state sanctions and national acceptability of the Judeo-Christian value system is truly on it’s last hoorah. It is also my belief, that though this is not preferred in the natural state of things, in terms of our final real spiritual influence in our neck of the world, its demise should in fact be to us as a bittersweet yet welcome long-lost friend.

 

However, up until now, our only friend has indeed been the world I’m afraid. So for decades now, and as a result, the church in America has lost its cultural influence. And the reason has been two-fold. First of all, as Christians have become more and more equal purveyors and evangelists of the American Dream, and as a result have become non-distinct in the culture at large, to the point that no one is truly listening anymore. To make matters worse, the church, in a mad dash to sidestep its corporate lack of holiness and strangeness in Babylon, decided instead that what the world really needed from us was our relevance. As a result we traded clerical collars for skinny jeans, hymnody for rock n roll shows, and real prophetic pastors with John the Baptist-like backbone for CEO’s who know how to grow organizations.   As a result we saw the masses both come and go over the last several decades, and who are now going, going, and you guessed it…now gone. And yet we continually scratch our heads as to exactly what and why it happened. The second reason we lost our cultural influence is because not only is it by nature of Christianity itself that we become strangers and aliens in a foreign land as God’s people always have been, but also because we have needed to indeed reinvent who we are to actually be in exile before we can again gain any credence again in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.

 

You see the truth of the matter is that we have lived as preferred members of the state for so long, that we have no real experience living as people of exile as our own scriptures propose that we must live as. We have not yet resisted to blood, or lost our property like much of the great cloud of witnesses of the early church did, as well as the countless millions who have suffered and still do suffer as exilic people all across the world. We have lived in a land that respected our clergy, upheld our values as having equal billing on the cultural marquee, and have benefited from living in a country that upholds our right to speak our minds as it’s very own Holy Grail. As a result, I’m afraid we are at a real disservice as to what to do about it. We have now exercised our right as free citizens to vote someone out and someone else in more to our liking, and more akin to our particular brand of the truth. And I think that secretly we perhaps all believe that unprecedented economic growth, prayer in public schools, and the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn are indeed just around the corner. We’re also pretty sure that our new commander and chief will fix everything that is broken, and pretty soon our own vision of America will be of course “great again”, and things will go back to being as they always have been. After all, as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home”.

 

I must conclude by saying that I long for the same primrose path as everyone else, and long for the days when the struggle to make it in this crazy world would yield some sort of final success story somewhere over the rainbow. It’s in our human nature to do so, and the Father of course knows we at least desire and even have some need of these things. But as I look out across the landscape of the culture of which you and I are apart, I can’t help but believe that the trajectory we were headed for has only been given but a speed bump for now. And of course, we voted for that speed bump and it is now very prevalently in the road. Yet the truth of the matter is, that the vast majority of our land and even our world are fast and furiously conspiring in order to ensure that there won’t be a second one. As a result, My only prayer for you and I is that when that happens, and it will; I would wish we’d all been ready!

 

Selah