Jesus: The God We All Imagine to Be True

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.

God Conversations

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!

Selah

 

 

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.