It was years ago now when I began to wrestle as a Christian with what God would have me do with my “stuff”. In other words, though I was not wealthy per se, every now and again I could do pretty well for my family. And as I began to evaluate that through the lens of my professed Christianity, I began to see a little glimpse into what Jesus was in such a fuss about when he talked about money—something that he talked an awful lot about. He did so specifically as it related to how those identifying with this new upside-down kingdom were to hold on to it, or not. And Jesus seemed to always have different strokes for different folks in this regard.
Now though I had always been a giver of myself and my “stuff”, since I had never had any real wealth to speak of, I began to realize one can only understand the principle of extravagant giving when he or she is suddenly faced with the reality of their growing discretionary income. Because until then, it is sheer “speculation”, or mere pompous sermonizing to others about something you yourself have never had to wrestle with. And so I found out that until you have a big check that you can actually write and that won’t bounce, the talk is cheap. Also, most interestingly, as I reflected on these weighty matters, I saw something I had not seen before. It seemed that both the rich, and the poor were guilty in a similar vein. For the rich looked down on the poor for what they did not have, but the poor envied and even hated the rich for that very same reason.
And I guess you could say because of that experience, I began to see that contrary to the social justice warrior community and many on the progressive left, Jesus was not condemning a man’s wealth at all. In fact, a lot of people who give the scriptures a mere cursory glance rather than sticking around for a while miss this by at least a mile or so. Because contrarily, rather than condemning a man or woman’s ability to make wealth, Jesus’ cautions were to simply remind them who gave them the power to make it in the first place, and thus equally challenging them as to whether or not they should hold on to it loosely instead of guarding it with a miserly clinched fist. And as I see it, for Jesus, it really came down to our clear decisiveness as to which kingdom we were to now focus on, and whether or not we trusted that God actually had our continual back once we sowed into it. And like the two men we are going to briefly look at today, one of them teeter tottered on the precipice of radical Christianity on the narrow path, yet then succumbed to the default comfort of the mere “letter of the law”. The other presented with the same invitation, knew that the Spirit would require a change of the heart in proportion to the talents (or wealth) one had actually been given. Consequently, one left saddened because he finally understood the requirement, while the other had something Jesus called “salvation” finally enter into his very home.
Rich Dude #1
The first rich dude (we’ll call him “The Rich Young Ruler”) encountered Jesus, and it seemed Jesus was pretty smitten with him at first. In fact, the scriptures lead us to believe that Jesus is perhaps offering to him a chance to throw in his lot with the rest of the motley crew. And so the crowd awaits with anticipation as the young man asks Jesus what seems to be a really great question given the circumstances. He asks, “What good thing must I do to gain eternal life? Jesus’ reply seems to be accommodating at first glance. He throws out what seems to be a spiritual soft ball of sorts by having some table-talk with the young fellow about the goodness of God as opposed to man. A little Sunday-school primer shall we say. And yet as I read it, I can’t help but wonder if the subtle innuendo before us is that the man’s first question is in itself incriminating his chances of becoming disciple #13, as he inadvertently shows us his unlucky hand. He does so by holding on to a list of do’s and don’ts that he has always evaluated himself by, and marvelously always came out smelling like a rose! And yet also rather cryptically it seems, alerting us to the fact that “eternal life” is yet one thing left on his rich bucket list that he has not yet attained. Perhaps he seems to think Jesus is also on to something more, which is why he is inquisitive, and so we don’t want to take that from him. However, lurking somewhere in the distance is a man, who also like many of us, equates salvation as mere icing on the cake or simply “fire insurance” added to an already privileged and also sheltered life.
And yet before Jesus gets the conversation down to brass tacks, He lobs out one more soft ball question about an answer he knows all of us law-abiding religionists will get right without batting an eye. And as you guessed it, the young ruler does not disappoint. For like us, he has a lot of head knowledge that has yet to seep down into his stony heart. And it is here that Jesus has now called the spade out for what it is! For In knowing that the man actually thinks he is already good, and that salvation is something to be gained by his own effort and money clip, he puts the very prerequisite before him that is the one thing that always separates the men from the boys on the narrow path: zeroing in on whatever the one thing is in our lives that we love more than the God we profess we want to follow. And for rich dude #1, that love is money honey; and all at once, there is nothing left in sight but the road still untraveled.
Rich Dude #2
Rich dude #2 actually has a name, and we know him as Zacchaeus. He was a short dude, and so I guess he had to have money if he wanted to pick up chicks. I don’t know. Or maybe it was because he was a chief tax collector, which was tantamount to being a lawyer, or perhaps today’s Title-loan shark. Yea, that’s it. But anyway, Zacchaeus was also intrigued by Jesus and wanted to know more, and so being short and all, he climbed one of them there sycamore trees and such, so he would be sure to not miss Jesus when he passed by. And maybe he didn’t actually think he would get to see Jesus so he was keeping a safe distance, but Jesus spotted him and told him that he “needed” to come to his house. This little tidbit we are told elated Zacchaeus, yet likewise also further disrupted the religiosity of pretty much everyone else in sight. Yet for Zacchaeus, it didn’t matter, because wealth was all had. He made no such boasts such as the young ruler about keeping the law perfectly all his life. Rather, he was more than likely rich and also lonely, because he made a living exploiting the rich and the poor, and everyone else in between. We’re not given much commentary after this, but one thing we know, is that like the grinch, he got a super-size heart that day that came with a recipe for his immediate change. His vow therefore became the following: “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much”. Then Jesus said these very telling words that will help us wrap up our thoughts today. He said, “Today salvation has come to this household”.
Me and You
So in the end, we have two sets of rich dudes. Both are spiritual seekers, but only one recognized that in order for salvation to have its full effect, there would be costs associated. Costs in proportion to his own talent and wealth for the good of a different kingdom with a different kind of King. A salvation that requires a change in our behavior, and equally one that also involves a drastic reevaluation of the abundance of our own stuff, as well as equal ponderance and restlessness about what to do about those without the very basic stuff. And though there is no “one size fits all” strategy for who is to give and do what, one thing is abundantly clear: In order for salvation to truly come, we need to make sure we are the right kind of rich dude!
Command those who are rich in this world’s goods not to be haughty or to set their hope on riches, which are uncertain, but on God who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous givers, sharing with others. In this way they will save up a treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the future and so lay hold of what is truly life. (I Timothy 6:17-19 NET)
The Dying Man
To say I’ve been dying for some years now is probably a gross misrepresentation, even to those who knew depression had become both my regular and ever abiding companion. Nevertheless, this very real experience in my life will serve as a useful entry point into what I want to talk to you about today.
I’ve actually thought about writing about this particular life experience I only began to learn something about 11 years ago now. But for whatever reason, I simply made it part of my own daily remembrance since then. In fact, I have written it over and over in my weekly prayers, visibly posted it in familiar places where I can see it’s other-worldly common sense more regularly; and its compelling wisdom has been occasionally known to echo from my lips to others seemingly lost amid this thing called “life”. Particularly those “examined” lifers that are always willing to call the baby fat when it should be equally obvious to the rest of us.
A Visit to Mepkin Abbey
It started out during my enamored flirtation with the spiritual disciplines as a way to perhaps get more of God into me somehow. Now don’t get me wrong. I had always given that a college try throughout most of my life at least, but somehow the promise of more attentiveness to these matters as a way to keep me on the narrow path drew me closer to take a look see. That particular focus in my life would lead me to a place called Mepkin Abbey where I unexpectedly got some manna from heaven that I sorely needed.
Mepkin Abbey is a Cistercian monastery nestled along the Cooper River in a place appropriately called “Monk’s Corner, S.C.”. And in my search to find a cure for my impending death, I decided to not only go there and pray, but to also take a tour into what the life of men who did nothing more than work, pray and sing praises to God might be like. I wanted to see if where my particular trajectory in life seemed to be taking me was worth paying a little more attention to, instead of simply drowning it away in the evenings from the bottom of a bourbon glass.
After we walked through the various areas of where the men lived and worshiped and learned about the daily rhythms of their life, we were finally ushered into a room at the conclusion where we could ask any lingering questions that we might have for our tour guide. I remember distinctively others asking what I perceived to be rather trivial and superficial questions, that in my dying mind were not becoming to a man who had sold out his life to what I have come to believe is truly the “heart of the matter”. And so, as I continued to listen I grew ever more impatient, yet waiting my turn, I finally got the go ahead to take center stage. It was then that I looked at the monk now in his mid to late seventies, and I asked him what had been on my mind for some time now, and that as of yet had not found an answer to. I then said, “Sir, what is it that you have learned here, that you could not have learned on the outside in the real world”? And it was in that very pointed moment, with all eyes now waiting to hear his words, that without hesitation he played for me something of a movie short of his life.
He told me he had lived as a Catholic priest his whole life, and he then felt, nearing his retirement, that the most logical step for him was then to enter the monastery. We all listened on. He then said that the one thing that he learned in his life of ministry, specifically as he spent a lot of time with the sick and dying in the hospital and in parishioners homes, was that those who were dying all of sudden became the most selfless people he had ever met. He then added that these dying people came to realize in their looming death, that the only thing that really mattered, was to now “lose oneself” in the service of God and to others. Sniff, Sniff. He then said, “That is what I learned here, without having to die”! And to this day, I have never forgotten it.
The King’s Wisdom
Now for those of you who know about what I speak; the dying that is; you also know that pouring fuel onto a walking dead man on fire is not typically the best course of action. However, for me, hanging out in the book of Job, or particularly with a wise and somewhat nihilistic King were actually just what the doctor ordered. For King Solomon pulls no punches. He’s not whispering tiddlywinks or blowing smoke up our ass! He’s been there, done that and bought the t-shirt; as well as the t-shirt factory. And by way of introduction, he lets us dead people know that we’re actually right. All this stuff he says is a vanity of epic proportions, and so he has to spend a great deal of time shoving his epiphanic nihilism in our faces, just in case we have a tendency to forget. Because of course; we do.
And so our sagely friend starts with the bad news by expounding on a litany of things all of us dying men already know all too painfully. For instance, things like being obsessed with having “stuff”; receiving accolades from men; becoming freakin “know it alls”; and those who embrace an epicurean lifestyle. And he says in no uncertain terms, that these things are in fact on the road to a dead-end street (no pun intended). And quite honestly, if we are wise, we stand up and pay attention, because we are hearing this from the lips of a man who spared no amount of time, money or devotion to those very things for the entirety of his life. And the result: A man who could find no rest for the one thing he needed most when it counted—his very own soul. And his reminder to us is that in the end, you and I will die! And regardless of whether or not we cherish the thought, they will forget us more than likely before the freakin weekend!
Now just let that sink in for a moment.
But before we criticize the man for stealing our mojo, he rightfully steers us towards a practice that most of the world simply won’t sign up for. For he says in chapter 7:3 that “death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart”. In other words, Solomon tells us that the way to really live rightly is to do so out of the certain and futuristic crystal ball depicting our own demise.
Death-talk Is Not In Vogue
Now to say that people in general don’t like to talk about this subject, and Americans more specifically, should be self-evident. We are constantly told, “you’re as young as you feel”, and “you’re not old, you’re just getting better” and other mounds of bullshit just like that! Oh, now don’t get me wrong, keeping a young mind so to speak, while obviously growing old, is a perspective we should all embrace. But the fact remains, that in order to live a good life, a life that really matters, the reality of death and taxes as absolute certainties in this life should occupy our thoughts much more than it does I’m afraid. Because the facts are in man, and none of us are getting out of this damn thing alive!
Now I’m fortunate in the sense that I began to think somewhat like this as I mentioned earlier during a particular economic death I experienced some 11 years ago now. Which consequently always makes me a great companion for Tony Robbins types (no offense Tony), which are everywhere man! And though I’m all for goal-setting and reaching for the stars (whatever the Hell that means), quite honestly, I’m much more comfortable with a little morbid thinking that gives me a healthy dose of undeniable reality which reminds me that I’m really not that big of a deal in this whole drama. In fact, this reality, if we will allow it, can infuse us with something that will really teach us how to live rightfully, more so than simply “successfully”. And though they can be companion bedfellows (if they are rightfully defined), oftentimes they are most emphatically not!
Dead Men Tell No Tales
It was Friday the 13th of this year when I got an up close and personal brush with what death might actually feel like. And to show you how disordered my thinking still was, even though I had been in this class for some time now, the one thing that I kept rehashing over and over in my mind was the fact that I would leave my family with nothing as far as this world’s goods was concerned. Now not that being able to do so is a bad thing. It is most definitely not. And we should endeavor, without killing ourselves (pun intended), to do that. But the fact still remains, that if we die, and the saying that “he who dies with the most toys wins” is bullshit (and it is), then the legacy we leave in terms of what kind of person we were before God and to others is the only thing people will remember. Which is one of the reasons we are still talking about Mr. Rogers now some 16 years after his death. And the summation from both Fred and our somewhat nihilistic King is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”. It’s the only thing, and I mean the only thing that matters! I promise you.
And yet I know, at the stroke of my keyboard, many of us still consider this talk to be nothing more than poppycock and endless sermonizing from some “negative Nancy” types, only trying to rain on our parade. And I get it. I really do. However, the last time I checked; I never ever saw a hearse carrying around a trailer hitch. And to be sure, I never heard a dead man tell any tales to speak of. But then wait; perhaps they do after all.
Are you listening to this one?
Rod Stewart Theology
As I thought introspectively about the impetus for this blog, I couldn’t escape a flashback of the cover Rod Stewart did of the song “If Loving You is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right” for some reason. In fact, I can remember listening to that song for the first time in 1977 somehow knowing it was not just saying something about an affair between a married man and a woman that he is erotically smitten with. Also lurking there was somehow something much deeper in my mind that told me this song was about much, much more as it relates to an age-old problem most of us seem to never shake. And perhaps understandably so. For the very real but unquenchable pull of what we feel, see and touch is a powerful seduction that most of us fall prey to time and time again; causing us to howl like a cat in heat, repeatedly choosing the satiating temporal over our perception of the inaccessible eternal. Is it any wonder then that when the disciple that Jesus loved tells us to “love not the world“, we would prefer to cast our lot with those on the “highway to hell” instead. For after all, the cure for what ails us seems nowhere in sight, and often times the world feels pretty damn good—for a season that is.
John is trying to tell us something though in I John 2:15-17. The text reads,
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions is not from the Father, but is from the
world. And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever” (NET).
This is something that we must pay attention to very closely. For if loving the Father is right, and yet we choose to be wrong (in bed with world), there is a juxtaposition that cannot be reconciled on the narrow path laid out for us. And it is this paradox that constantly wars against our soul, beckoning us to draw straws for that which we actually believe gives us the best bang for the buck in the here and now, in stark opposition to the best the Father has for us. And according to biblical history and our collective human experience, our public record is replete with examples that matter-of-factly illustrate the fact that our allegiances to one or the other do matter; both in the here and now (which is a point we often miss), as well as in that everlasting place that our hearts both secretly and restlessly long for. Yet for the life of us, it often is a day late and at least a dollar short in our ability to somehow let it under our skin.
The Root of the Problem
We are in fact given more insider insight to the age-old problem we’re forced to grapple with in Genesis chapter 3, when the author alerts us with a news flash across our cerebral screens that “when the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it” (Gen. 3:6 NET). The temptation of course was deeper than the sensuality of the forbidden that summoned her that we just mentioned, but went much deeper into the human psyche of the very distinct possibility of becoming the master of her own destiny, and of somehow putting herself in the spot of the God who was somehow holding her back from “my body, my choice” or, just fill in the blank. Evidently Adam also thought this was an equally grand idea; and coupled with the thought of sleeping on the couch, the passive male now entered onto the world stage for our abiding education.
But let’s not give Adam and Eve too much of a go of it, for if we had stood in proxy, we would have eaten the whole damn tree; roots and all! For it is in the very raw and organic nature of mankind to run like a moth to a flame to grab hold of anything that we have been told is off limits for us. Thus to deny the instantaneous satiety of the smoldering red stew on the fire, the Delilah-like “brick-house” promising ecstasy for the night, or the subtle lure of calling one’s own shots; this is indeed the trifecta that has told the sad tale of mankind’s unhealthy love for the world, rather than for the creator who understands the rules it mercilessly plays by.
The God-like Fool and His Money
John however adds some additional insight that is equally helpful to us in discerning a better way forward from the shape we are in. In fact, we learn that it is not only the trifecta aforementioned, but also lurking behind “calling one’s own shots” is “the arrogance produced by material possessions”. It would seem that the very god-like characteristics that money exemplars gives us the added ammunition to tell God to “take the job and shove it”, while adding a heaping teaspoon of pride that makes man think he’s “gangsta-rich” and thus invincible, even when he hasn’t got an eternal pot to piss in! And if there is such a thing as “creating a monster”, this is one now full grown and ready to rumble.
So then, at the risk of being repetitive, we already learned that the biblical story and our own tells the tale well. Yet for our further reflection on the matter, Ezekiel 7:19 also reminds us that just like our current lesson, part of the Israelites own dilemma, and a direct result of their exile was in recognizing that it was their “god-like” wealth that was actually the “obstacle leading to their iniquity”. Several chapters later Ezekiel even goes so far to say that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was much deeper than we assume at the surface, as he chimes in that the Lord’s very own chosen had now given them a run for their money. In fact, in chapter 16:48-50 we learn that it was their “haughtiness” and “carefree ease” that caused them to not only neglect the weightier matters of giving a damn about others less fortunate than they, but also was the main ingredient that ultimately caused them to do the “abominable deeds” that wiped them off the map in the first place. And then I all of sudden remembered this prediction that has still yet to come to fruition. Ruth Bell Graham once said (paraphrased) “that if God doesn’t punish America soon, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah”. But let’s not give America too much credit. Because the real problem with the world, as G.K. Chesterton once so eloquently put, is in fact just plain ole (you) and “me”.
Who’s Your Real Daddy?
So the question we must answer then is both a simple and complex one I’m afraid. But you probably already figured as much. For John clearly tells us to make a decision as to “who’s our daddy”, and we know the right answer. We’ve been in that class for far too long I’m afraid. The eternal difficulty however lies in dealing head-on with the enigma I put before us at the outset of our brief talk today. For if it is in our DNA to prefer loving what we know is wrong because of its temporary yet aphrodisiacal nature, and thus consequently continually choosing not to be right instead; then the answer, like the snake that should have already bitten us, has to be both a daily and disciplined choice. A choice of putting in our lot and our love with the right family. The family that we are told first loved us with a whole lot of blood poured out to prove it. For the world promises much yet delivers little once our finite dust is settled, and thus choosing who you will love is of a most epic proportion! And yet if we cannot learn from our own mirrored history, then as one wiser than I once said, “we are eternally destined to repeat it”.
I’ve reminded myself a great deal lately about a spiritual truth that is echoed in all the synoptic gospels. In that lifeline to us, Jesus says in no uncertain terms that “unless we become as children, we cannot see the kingdom of God”! He then adds that the kingdom in fact “belongs to such as these”, while negating the lack thereof in what seems nothing shy of both an inhuman and uncommon characteristic to those who would live as an acolyte in the upside-down kingdom.
And in fact, if I had a dollar for every time I had read these profound words, surely I would dare not work another day. For they have become commonplace, and as much a part of my daily vernacular as “please” and “thank you”. In fact, I have often chewed its sagely cud and then tried to swallow long and hard; forever trying to get the spirit of it into the sinews of my spiritual bones so it becomes in fact “who I am” and all that I desire to be. And yet I have found, as I’m sure perhaps you have as well, this is a children’s class we were actually supposed to somehow graduate from; perhaps even long, long ago. And yet it’s neophyte and elementary wisdom somehow continually escapes us, so we eternally hit the repeat button on the lecture, while simultaneously being shuffled back against our will into our assigned seats somewhere in the back of the class.
I’ve thought about it a lot lately though. Especially in the quiet and somewhat somber reminiscence of my recent date with destiny, forced to deal head on with the sheer brevity of life that impolitely asked me to stand to its attention! And as a result, somehow its now circumspect advice has become all the rage of my life, as I now trade my back seat for a front row closer to the Master, asking him for one more chance to be the boy that finally made good on what has been entrusted to him. And as always, He is willing to stay after to make sure I somehow start to get it right. And what I am finding in His special after school class, is that being an eternal child is the absolute best place in the world to be in His kingdom—if we are willing to become one. And so, as I ponder much more wakefully these days, I’m reminded of several attributes, that in order to graduate this perpetual class, must somehow become the more natural inclination of my life.
The first thing we notice about small children, although we won’t fall prey to the idea of their impeccability; is that one can’t help but realize that it seems to be in their very nature to trust the adult in the room with the entirety of their lives. There seems to be a quiet and yet obvious demeanor that all is right with the world. And all the while, they don’t have a clue yet about their own depravity, much less the entrusted adults in the room; yet they innocently and also somewhat blindly render their cares to a “Que sera sera” notion. They are totally relaxed in one’s safekeeping who has proven time and time again to be trustworthy; forever throwing caution to the wind to those we might normally find suspicious, especially when there is the distinct possibility that’s its actually the devil in a clown’s garb (IT Part 2).
Is it any wonder then why we can’t become the teacher’s pet, when our “fight or flight” trajectory through life has taught us to always be on our guard and to trust no one, or; shame on us. For our trust is oftentimes stolen from us by a road of adults that paved our initial way with the projection of good intentions, yet which eventually taught us the cruel truth that came with wounds that last “forever and a day”. And so, the admonition to “become like a child” scares the Hell out of us quite frankly, when everything we know has taught us that for enlightened adults, this is sheer and utter credulity.
The second thing we notice about children is this sense of utter dependency. In fact, it comes ever so innately, without even a smidgeon of guilt for it being characteristic of them. That is because this is in the very fabric of their DNA. It’s their default position. And to think or feel otherwise is as foreign to them as a day without ice cream. They in fact know their Father will take care of them, and because of this realization, it never enters their thoughts as to the possibility that something will go awry.
And yet for us, we have become rather stalwart to the possibilities of taking anything for granted in this life. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps has long become the obsession of any given day, and to close one’s eye to the outside chance of some chink in our armor invites the incessant counting of sheep, coupled with a myriad of best made plans for another day. So each new morn, we lambast ourselves in the mirror of the mistakes we’ve made, with a promise to our independence that it won’t happen on our watch ever again. And so the monotonous cycle keeps us forever in its lair, unable to learn anything of peace and rest, or of a burden that we are told is light and easy. Though Jesus offers it, we really don’t believe it. Because in order to do so, it will require our abdication from our self-made throne. And to add to our dilemma, we must also let go of the never-ending worries that preoccupy each waking hour in order that they will not overtake us, and likewise cause us to skip out on the one who promised that He would never leave us nor forsake us. The road as we all know is of both winding and long.
Born Again; Again and Again
I guess I kind of understand what Jesus was after when he baffled Nicodemus with the admonition that he must somehow be born again. We skirt by that not really understanding; that though it refers to our need for change and a new “spiritual” birth, we often miss that this regeneration often needs to be both remembered and perhaps reenacted, oftentimes repeatedly throughout our walk on the narrow path. The reenactment is needed because children more than anything want to grow up, when all the while Peter Pan is whispering to us to instead forever stay a child. That’s sage advice indeed. For if indeed the kingdom belongs to such as these, we must grow ever more comfortable releasing our chokehold to the uncertainties of life, and instead put our tiny little hands into the hand of the man who always calms the sea. For I am quite sure that if we cannot, we will not even begin to ever truly know Him and His actual goodness in the very midst of life’s ambiguity all around us, and as a result, the best we can ever hope for is an elementary deja vu.
A blast from the not so distant past that seems relevant again today! 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…
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A blast from the not so distant past that seems relevant again today!
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written last, and the time passage has been missed, at least by me. It has also brought with it a bewilderment of what to actually say worthy of your ear’s attention. Call it “writer’s block”, or chalk it up as “when you don’t use it you lose it”; it really doesn’t matter. The point is, and what I’m really straining to say is, that I’m somewhat at a crossroads these days about what I’d like to talk about…again.
But then, like the surety of a daily problem to solve or survive, there it was, just this morning. As I poured through John chapter 3 for perhaps the millionth time in my life, the thought occurred to me for some reason as I meditated about the need to be born again by the Spirit and not the flesh, and the vast ramifications and theological…
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It was about 20-years ago now that I walked away from what they call “full-time” ministry in order to take a much-needed sabbatical. The break was also necessary for me to lick my gaping wounds from the continual attack from preacher-biting sheep! Equally, this detour gave me the opportunity to dissect my own naivety as to what the ministry was actually supposed to produce both in them and myself, but also in simply putting the pause button on what had become akin to my own personal purgatory in a valley of very, very dry bones. I realized then rather acutely that this was not at all what I had bargained for, and definitely not what I had envisioned as a preacher of the gospel with what felt like an actual call to do so. And so in the aftermath of my last gig on the preacher circuit, the only thing that made sense was to tuck tail and run as far away as I possibly could. It was at that time that I got a different call: an invitation of the world into the land of sales and business. The shift was not what I had expected, or had wished for up until that point, but the hopes of actually providing for my family and then landing somewhere on the actual food chain sounded like a feast we’d all been missing. And of course, for a while, it was indeed that.
Since I took that leap, traveling from week to week to a new city, a new hotel, or wining and dining those who would buy what I was peddling, I pondered time and again on the actual “why’s” of my exit from being a man of the cloth. And though that is still somewhat an experience in progress, I learned a lot about people outside of the four walls of the church in my exodus. And the eye-opener was, that the people I encountered and had conversations with, by and large, were really intrigued and secretly both loved and desired to talk about the man we call Jesus. Now to be sure the times have shifted as we continually become far beyond anything Post-Christian used to mean, but the fact remains that people in general know down deep inside of their heart of hearts that this man Jesus (or the very idea of Him) is the very God they imagine. A God they wish were true as they sleep at night when one else but them and the God they don’t believe in are paying attention. It’s as if somehow, they almost instinctively know that this mysterious figure in history is as close to a God they could potentially follow as anything they have ever come in contact with, even as they shuffle on from day to day pretending that it’s actually too good to be true.
The Upset Applecart
There are some reasons for this indecisiveness on their part of course. But before we touch on that, the holy scriptures actually tell us that He is indeed the God they secretly admire from afar in the entirety of its story. Yet it also states that Jesus is not only God, but that he is the exact representation of His nature (Heb. 1:3 NET), and that if we have seen Him we have indeed seen the Father (John 14:9 NET); and that this same Father has made Him known in space, time and history (John 1:18). So bottom line: Jesus “is” the God you and I in the choir know, and indeed the God the world covertly longs for. So that seems like really good news at the outset doesn’t it? Of course the problem comes in when the same conversations I mentioned earlier lead to a conversation about the church that is to be at least some representation of that same God we wish to be true. All of a sudden, the waters gets really muddied. And as you probably already know, their admission is that they really like the idea of Jesus (what they think they know about Him), but as far as the church goes, they have a hard time distinguishing whether or not they are indeed one and the same.
The Problem is Nothing New…But
This problem I’ve described is of course no new story. Many have in fact ranted for a couple of decades now about the supposed decline of the church and how secularists (the nones) and those who have left the church (the dones) have opted for a day at the beach or to be “home-churched”. But this brings up something that I want to begin to wrap our talk up with today. In fact, a guy by the name of Michael Lewis (internetmonk.com) who passed away several years ago now, hit a nerve with a book he wrote called Mere Churchianity. The book really changed my life and ruined me more than I already was quite frankly. But his overarching thesis was the gaping difference between what most of us have been eternally baptized in (what he calls a “Church-shaped spirituality”), and the one he rightly says we should have instead that he called a “Jesus-shaped Spirituality”. I mean after all that makes sense doesn’t it? I mean if Jesus “is” the exact representation of God, and he’s the God we imagine, then those of us who truly know him should probably look like and act at least like a distant cousin. But hang with me for just a moment longer.
Jesus-Shaped vs Church-Shaped Spirituality
Now again, you might be saying, “I get it”. We’ve all heard this before Mark. But I think if we stop long enough to think about it, it deserves meditation beyond the typical defense posture we posit with such things as “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”, or, “It’s all about grace brother”. Or the one I like the most which says: “Be careful talking about the Bride of Christ man”. And in all fairness to those church defenders, we know to some degree that all those rebuttals have their credible merit but have also become far too “Christian cliché” if I may. But the truth is, I have long believed that Michael was on to something that is just as relevant today for our equal musing. Because the fact is, that the ones who walked and talked with Jesus for 3 ½ years, and who mostly were murdered for holding on to this very unpopular belief, remind us that “the one who resides in God ought himself to walk just as Jesus walked” (I John 2:6 NET). And though this seems obvious to the point of being overly cliché again, I ask you, “Does Michael have a point here”? Does there not seem to be a stark difference in what you observe from what he called “churchianity” and what instead exemplifies a little more in the way of Jesus”?
If It Was a Snake, It Would Have Bit Us
The truth is, we all know that if this was a snake it would have bit us by now. But perhaps we have become the Anti-Venom. Yet surely we all know (myself included) that somehow deep inside ourselves, we are often more shaped by American values (enculturation) or the values and agendas of our favorite church, more than we are by the values of Christ himself. The reason of course is because they are often polar opposites, or still yet to be deciphered by wood, hay and stubble that Paul warns us about (I Cor. 3:12-15). And of course it doesn’t take even an amateur theologian to inform us that to not live by the values that the world and society says we must somehow operate under for our survival, is to bring about additional pain and suffering to what is already natural to the collective human experiment. Yet somehow, we must secretly also know, that as we sheepishly negate the spirituality of Jesus rubbing off on us too much, we must also recognize that our watered down version of that same otherworldliness will indeed continue to thwart the impact of the gospel upon those who are secretly wishing for Jesus to come walking through their front door in some kind of shoe leather.
The Show is Sold Out Folks
Again, though the song remains the same here, it seems nobody is really listening or wrestling enough in most circles as to what a “Jesus-shaped spirituality” is to look like amidst the upstream current we will be swimming against should we decide to change our course. But I ask you dear friend, “Will all of our reasoned discourse, homiletical precision, multiple church services, and rock and roll worship bands begin to turn the tide of those secretly wishing the Jesus we herald is the God that they imagine”? Or, is the form of godliness we currently possess just shy of the power both to walk as He walked and to do what He did? And if the demon now is so deep in the culture (Martin Lloyd Jones), which any thinking Christian must readily admit is the case, will anything but little Christ’s in some form of distinct saintliness and power be able to have the potential to expel it from our midst as we are now in the outskirts of what feels like our final hours? If we still think so; somehow, perhaps we will forever be doing nothing more than playing musical chairs with the same choir we’ve always been preaching to–shuffling in and out to our same song and dance. But for those who still wish for the God they have imagined, well; I guess there’s always another show!
The concept of being taken where we don’t want to go or being forced to do what we don’t want to do is anathema to those born and bred in the land of Stars and Stripes. Although we might concede to that arrangement as a child with no current bargaining chips, to be sure our goal as we exit the tutelage of our mothers and fathers is to never, ever do so again. The ability to choose what we want when we want, akin to a never-ending seafood buffet line, is something most of us have been burdened with since we first put our foot on the floor. In fact, it’s really not that beneficial, though it is not my purpose to explore that outside of setting the stage for our talk today. Yet I’m told by many from third-world countries that this is in stark antithesis to their everyday experience. The ability to choose, or to perhaps “pull oneself up by their bootstraps” even, as a matter of choice, is a far-off and even grandiose idea. For on the one hand too many options brings with it great confusion; and on the other, changing one’s “caste” so to speak is not only impossible for them, but somehow a disruption of some reincarnational destiny baked into their subconscious. And even though this “I did it my way” philosophy seems to be the entitlement of those of us in the land of plenty, my “spidey-sense” tells me that we ought not get used to it all the way to four score and ten. In fact, my dear friend and spiritual mentor Peter the Rock had a conversation with Jesus one day about this very thing.
Breakfast On the Beach
It was shortly after the resurrection, when the disciples gathered together with Jesus in Galilee, that Peter; perhaps reminiscent of previous days, decided they would rondavu for some good ole night-fishing. And yet as is often the case, on this night, the fish weren’t willing to join the party, and so they caught nada, zilch! Then in a flash, equally similar to those miraculous days before the crucifixion, Jesus, who now affectionally called them “children” (I really love that by the way), asks them to throw their net on the right side of the boat. By this time of course, they have at least learned to do exactly as he says it seems, and faith having now taught them these valuable lessons, now yielded so many fish that they could not pull them all in. And so it was, right before the fish fry, that Peter and the true love of his life were to have their most difficult, and at the same time transformational conversation.
It started out as John realizes that the guy who tells them to throw the net on the right side is of course the Lord (duh). It is then that Peter ditches the fish cleaning duty and jumps into the sea in order to beat the rest of the gang to the shore where Jesus is already serving up a morning breakfast of fish and bread. He then shoves a few more on the grill from the morning catch and invites the rag-tag fisherman turned disciples to join him for a sumptuous breakfast on the beach. And our text tells us in John chapter 21, that though the disciples know it is the Lord, something inside tells them that he is different now in both the strangest and magnificent of ways that they cannot quite explain.
A Class We’d Like To Miss
And now, as is often the case, the conversation turns to Peter; perhaps somewhat still dejected and reluctant to offer much busy spiritual talk in the aftermath of his utter denial of the man he walked and talked with for three years of his life. Jesus of course knows this, and so He asks him a rather pointed question as he often did when he says, “Do you love me more than these do”? Peter’s normal tendency, as is still the case here, is to be the best in the class as he retorts “Yes, Lord, you know I love you”. Peter figures they can now move on to other things, but Jesus is not ready to concede yet, as he asks him yet two more times if he loves him, adding the admonition to “feed or shepherd my sheep”. And it is here that we see that Jesus seems to be giving him a hall pass for the utter denial at Jesus’ darkest hour, yet as Peter perhaps reluctantly accepts this, he also begins to feel that maybe Jesus is sticking in the knife further by asking him “3” times just as he denied Jesus in the same progression. Yet what we find is that Jesus is doing nothing of the sort, but lovingly letting him know that He has not given up on him, but is yet again commissioning him to take up the towel and serve in the way of the Master, and to equally love and shepherd those like you and I, who need this broken shell of a man to lead us down our own broken and sometimes cruciform road.
And I mention cruciform because it is to be both Peter’s and our own in some form or fashion if we take seriously the call to love, to serve, to feed and to shepherd the stubborn sheep of God until He returns again. You know…people like us. Yet it is here that our lesson comes into clear view. Jesus tells him ever so generally, yet prophetically nonetheless, that though in his reckless youth he has been used to calling the shots and marching to the beat of his own drum, that there will come a time when this will not be the case. He reminds him that when he is old, he will be taken outside of his own will, and outside of the purposing of his own life, somewhere that he doesn’t want to go at all. We are then told by Jesus in a somewhat cryptic form what church history seems to confirm–that Peter would suffer the same fate as his Master. And yet, Jesus still says to him the same words, “Follow me”.
Can I Just Be Like John for Goodness Sakes?
But before we unpack this (and I’ve always been able to relate to Peter’s response here) he then turns and looks at his spiritual rival (John), and essentially asks Jesus, “Well, if I’m going to die like that, which I don’t even want to think about right now, then what about John boy here”? And it is here that Jesus says to Peter something that I have often heard him similarly saying to me, and perhaps on your walk on the narrow path, you’ve heard it as well. He tells him to quit worrying about John, Paul, George, or even Ringo for that matter, but gets right back to the most important issue at hand for us all. And that is to answer the question correctly and most decisively whether or not we will accept the call to follow, though none go with us or not. Because to be able to answer the question rightly is the only thing that really matters. And Jesus is confronting Peter head on with this, even as he tells him that there will be a time when he will not call the damn shots at all, but will instead give up the ghost in the fight of faith. And so there remains before us a similar and yet equally important reminder before we take another step, that whatever our lot in this life; whatever our achievement or not; our legacy or not; or inheritance we leave the ones we love or not, answering whether we have decided to simply follow is the watershed issue of our lives!
The Answer That Is Still Blowing In My Wind
It was September the 12th, 2019 when I wrote, Forever Trying to Graduate from the Incredible Sinking Class https://marknealprince.com/2019/09/12/forever-trying-to-graduate-from-the-incredible-sinking-class/ where again I attempted to instruct myself and others in the Petrine class of failures, hard knocks, and lessons we must learn if we are to walk on the narrow path Jesus is always guiding His own towards. In my conclusion, my analysis was that sometimes, and even oftentimes in this life, it is not until we are truly sinking, and the one thing left visible of us out on that big ocean called life is one lone eyeball sending out one last S.O.S. right before we drown! It is then, and many times only then, that faith comes in like a tsunami and yet actually saves us (even from ourselves) so we can finally be useful in the Kingdom of God, and so we can finally have the kind of sight that can actually guide us and others the rest of the way.
Now though I’m not Peter by a long shot, though in some ways we all are, on Friday, September the 13th, I was taken where I did not wish to go. As I lay on the cold operating table still awake to the sights and sounds of men and women with masks deciding my fate, inserting long tubes into my heart to mend what I had for so long ignored was broken, I longed for someone to tell me it was finally over. From the days hence, I’ve sought the Lord and waited like a dog longing for a long-lost bone for a word from Him. And like Martha, and like Peter even, I am worrying about many things and wondering what is to yet to be made of my life in the grand kingdom story, or if I still have a shot like John and others seem to have. I’m still waiting, and waiting for some epiphany, for some silver bullet, or perhaps a still small voice would be nice. But there is one thing that keeps coming back like a resounding gong in my ear that I have a tendency to ignore due to its utter simplicity, since I too have heard it time and time again. And like Peter, I’m a little perplexed and perhaps a little sad at its eternal repetition throughout my life, somehow waiting for something more. Yet here it is again, and yet now it is so much sharper in my ear. I hear him saying to me, “Mark, my dear, dear child, just follow me”!
A Willing, yet Gullible Spirit
If there is one thing I know in the marathon called life on the narrow path, it is this: When Jesus said, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”, He was telling the sho’nuff truth yall. Just saying.
Interestingly, he made that pronouncement when He was getting ready to have his life handed over to be brutally murdered while His best homies were found sleeping on the job. Instead of praying, they were catching some Z’s! Boy can I relate. And consequently, if it wasn’t for the comfort of the disciple’s blunders as an exemplar of what “not to do” making me breathe a sigh of relief, I would have ditched this narrow path thing a long, long time ago. Can I get an amen up in this joint?
Peter seemed to be the ringleader on this kind of shenanigans as a matter of fact. You know, like when he got the brownie points for getting the right answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am” that Jesus asked the class rather pointedly. Peter states with a shit-eating grin on his face (paraphrased), “Well, everyone knows Jesus that you of course are ‘The Christ, the Son of the Living God’” (in an operatic tone) as he then drops the mic! Booya! So, in essence, Peter gets the star for the day in class. Two stars in fact. But of course moments later, in what he thought was an equal star-worthy moment, as Jesus lays out the trajectory of his trip to Jerusalem and getting crucified plan, Peter has now received just enough accolades to instruct the teacher apparently. So he basically looks at Jesus and says something like, “Never Jesus, ain’t gonna happen on my watch”! To which Jesus quickly deflates Peter’s balloon of a growing big head ego with something only your mama could get away with saying and your dignity to still remain intact. He says, “Get Behind Me Satan! You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s”. So yeah, the Spirit is indeed willing, but…let’s not move the tassel to the left just yet for the one with the keys and all!
The Reality of Weakened Flesh
I mean when that happened, you would have thought he would have had that Deja vu moment right? I mean when the class that keeps most of us from ever graduating took place, you would think he would have at least had some cliff notes somewhere. But no. He is so eager to please, and yet complimentarily, is also so smitten with Jesus more than most at the same time to be sure.
But the scene is set for us. Jesus, as he often does, goes to pray alone somewhere (subliminal alert to all flunky disciples like me). And while He does, and since evidently doing other things rather than praying when Jesus does is more important, like for instance “fishing” (during a storm), they spot this figure on the water coming toward them. And as they wipe their eyes and pinch each other to make sure this is real, the scene changes to a Stephen King novel come to the big screen, and they see dead people (wrong movie), or rather what looks like a ghost I mean. Well we all know the story. And Peter, simply trying to graduate with honors again, gets this bright idea that if that’s actually Jesus, which they now recognize it is, perhaps he will really show up the rest of these rag-tag fellows by walking right alongside Him and “be the man” once and for all. And of course, as Jesus often does, he commends his effort and says, “Sure, come on down Pete”.
And as the plot then thickens, Peter steps out of the boat and walks on the water to Jesus. And by then, he must have been saying, “Jesus, I think I am now ready to teach the class on ‘How to Follow Jesus in Just Three Easy Steps’, and then join Enoch and Elijah for that chariot that awaits to escort me to heavenly bliss”. So he’s walking, with that strut and all (on the water in a storm mind you), and then it happened as sure as the damn dew in the early morning, the text says that “he saw the strong wind and he became afraid”. And I’m like, “No shit Sherlock”, welcome to the long line of flunkies who always have to repeat this same class! And as the disciples collectively sing in the background “Never gonna get it, never gonna get it”, the comedy becomes all too hauntingly familiar and up close and personal. At least to those of us who can admit that the flesh cannot and will not EVER get the job done! And all of a sudden, if we’re honest, we no longer hate Peter for his continual “sucking up”, and instead, we like him…a lot.
The Audacity of Faith Called into Question
And so rather than over spiritualize this difficult lesson in faith, to be honest, I get a little miffed that Jesus says to Peter, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”, don’t you? Because it is at this point that I more identify with Peter here. Truth serum injection alert! I mean you and I get the picture. It’s dark, there’s a storm, and the waves are about to engulf him, and all his posse is laughing and talking about his mama all at once! Who wouldn’t’ be afraid? Who wouldn’t call everything into question? Who wouldn’t begin to sink under those circumstances? Let’s do a go fund me right now!
Well the sanctimonious among us like kicking Peter types when they fall or drown most of the time. Doesn’t really matter though. From the safety of our current “non-storm” in our lives we say, “Dude, Jesus is with you, all you had to do is keep your eyes on Him and you would have been just fine man”. And, they get a star for that. I mean after all, it’s the truth. Really it is. But does it also not make you scratch your head and wonder, “If the Israelites, and all those jive turkeys in the New Testament saw the hand of God, and even God himself, and His only son actually “do” miracles in front of their faces, why can’t you and I just walk on the narrow path with our chest out like a boss man”?
I’ve often wondered that myself, especially, even today; perhaps like most of you. But you don’t have to raise your hand or anything. But just between us, here’s a newsflash: Life is fricking hard as Hell, with or without Jesus! And it doesn’t matter whether he’s in the boat, out of the boat, all up in your grill, or whether he just finished calming whatever storm in your own life. It just doesn’t matter. Because first of all, whatever victory you did have, you have probably by now written off as coincidence or donated it to science. Or, better yet, if it was the failure and the sinking and not the victory you experienced (more often than not by my terms), the rub is this: Sometimes even when Jesus is there for real, or by faith, we cannot for the life of us see Him anywhere! Because after all, we are sinking! And it’s not imaginary, it’s not our abnormal psychology kicking in, or our imaginary freakin friend. Hell no, it is for real OK! So let’s just call it out can we?
The Other Side of Fear
George Addair is accredited with the famous quote, and one that I both love and hate because of its truthfulness and difficulty in actually carrying out. He said, “Everything you have always wanted is on the other side of fear”. Moment of silence please. Let that sink in and breath slowly! And in this case, the devil, or “Mr. Frenchy”, or whatever you desire to call him, specializes in fear. It’s his favorite my precious. And you guessed it. He is behind all that blocks us from the way of “real” faith. He keeps us petrified in fear, and his primary job it seems, is to lie to us; and just for kicks and giggles, I’m told he likes to steal, kill and destroy too! Just watch the evening news and you’ll get it immediately.
Stephen King in fact, seems to also know, as in the case with the reboot of his recent films (parts 1 and 2) of IT from his earlier novel. Now I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it. But every one of the cast of characters, from the first movie to the one just released last week, has come from some depravity and fear in their life for which they feel that cannot ever escape. Whether it be falling victim to an overprotective and hypochondriac mother; owning the guilt of a brother who was tragically murdered; caught up in the crutches of a pedophilic father; or as a fat kid who’ll probably never be kissed by the girl he loves; the song remains the same. IT knows what they fear, and he can transform himself into whatever that is, with all the guilt to boot. Ironically, he’s a clown, which kids (most) would normally trust and love, but IT is also the most hideous beast one can imagine with an evil bite! Or, if you’ll have it, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or for our purposes here, maybe even and angel of light!
But here’s the point, and I know it took me awhile to get here. The charismatics, or perhaps we’ll call them “people of faith”, can teach us something here. They’ve been teaching me a lot lately (though I’m very slow at this), as I still remain cautious, probably to a fault. But the truth is, that Jesus and George Addair (not necessarily the same) are right. Everything we want, everything God can and apparently wants to do both for us and in us, is on the other side of fear–which is the hardest class if you haven’t gotten it by now. It’s the Mother lode I’m telling you.
Because you see, faith only comes through when you’re drowning, and there’s only one eyeball left on top of the water that anyone can see coming out of your nappy head! It seems to only come then. And it doesn’t matter whether you see Jesus like Peter did, or whether you can’t always see Him like you and me. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve been there time and time again, and so you just think, “God, why don’t you stop picking on me while I’m dying over here. And why then do you have the audacity to ask, ‘Why did you doubt’”? What matters is simply this, as I’m sure Peter finally realized as that last bit of blood rushed to his head on his upside cross as he finally graduated the incredible sinking class: Faith only comes through once you die, or you drown, and not a moment before! And the good news for us is, you don’t always have to die or drown, but you sure as Hell will feel like it and experience some of what it might feel like, time and time again. Because after all, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things that are currently unseen—while you are drowning. For in that moment, and only through the Spirit of God, faith speaks things that are currently not as if they actually are. And no, Dale Carnegie is not getting ready to walk in. And No, it’s not Norman Vincent Peale or Robert Schuller either. But I will tell you this: He that comes to God, must not only believe that He is God, but continually (every single day, while you are in fact drowning, I’m afraid), that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. Because faith is a full contact sport my friend. And getting your ass kicked from to time, and I mean like Mike Tyson, ear-biting ass kicked, is the only way we’ll ever graduate the incredible sinking class!