From Stalwart Allegiance to a Slip, Sliding Away
It was 26 years ago, that at the age of 27, I finally fell down at my dining room table and conceded to the great hound of heaven. The one who had watched me run so long and so hard away from His loving arms till exhaustion finally took its inevitable toll. I had finally gotten “sick and tired of being sick and tired” as they say, and he knew it—and all I could do was say, “Here I am; please do something with this mess I’ve made of my life”.
You see though I grew up in the church and “gave my heart to Jesus” every other Sunday night; up until this point, something in that process had not yet “taken” shall we say. For shortly after my commitment to forsake all for the cause of Christ, I was only a short mini-skirt or bong hit away from becoming a casualty in the spiritual war in the heavenlies. To be sure part of it was due to my family dysfunction, an additional portion was the rejection of an evangelicalism that I could not measure up to, and yet a vast percentage was simply due to two competing loves you might say. There was of course the love of the world I was caught up in that I could at least touch, taste and feel; and then there was the promise of a love and a home that was eternal, but yet somewhere beyond the horizon of my current ability to experience all that it had to offer. And to be sure, for most of us, this is indeed where the rubber meets the road.
Nonetheless, at the age of 27, the aspect of what it meant to hear the Lord say “Well done, thy good and faithful servant”, and this facet of what it means to truly “finish well” gave me new aspirations from which to strive and set my face like flint towards. And for quite awhile, even amidst many failures along the way to be sure, I felt that my roots started to go deep; and that a faithful tree with a promising future started to sink down by streams of water with some visible fruit for the world around me to pick from. Through a daily walk and later years of theological study, as well as a brief stint in pastoral church ministry; though difficult at times, the eternal love started to win the battle of my allegiance more times than not, and I was perhaps the happiest I had ever been.
Fast forward through my personal battle with what in my minds’ eye the church was becoming and heading towards, I eventually took a sabbatical that has lasted some 16 plus years now with perhaps no end in sight. During that time, I felt that I was still “walking the walk and talking the talk” for the most part. For instance, I was still a family man; I still read my Bible everyday and prayed; I gave to those in need around me to a bloody fault; and reasoned that for the most part, I was still on the straight and narrow path. During this time, I also shucked off most of the stifling restraints that evangelicalism sought to impose upon me to “not smoke, drink or chew and run with those who do”, and set out to explore what the church world outside of evangelicalism’s doors had to offer someone looking for a much deeper and vibrant faith–one capable of real answers to questions the church no longer seemed to even desire to answer. Yet though I had periods of great faith during this time; like the frog in the kettle, I too slowly had the “finishing well” cooked out of me, and much of who I had become looked an awful like the world I had told God so many years ago I would never fall in love with again. And as I looked around, I realized that the church had joined me in this great falling away. And it seems that now, this characteristic of “finishing well” has become at least “50 shades of grey.”
The World’s Definition
The world has its various ideas of what it means to finish well to be sure. Many believe that it has to do with dying with the most toys, which typically boils down to the acquiring of houses, cars, stocks and bonds; retirement by the sea, and a solid inheritance for our progeny as the epitome of a successful life. Others search for power, prestige and fame that equally come with spoils that can afford whatever the heart desires. Some seek to live on the edge, and get their kicks in jumping out of soaring planes, climbing the highest mountains or swimming on the ocean floor—or slowly but surely checking off a bucket list that defines and gives their life the greatest possible meaning. Then there are others who look for various social-justice causes to give themselves to with a view to making a name for themselves as well; yet also no doubt in order to leave the world a little better than the way they found it. And it would seem that for others, to finish well apparently means to waste away in front of a television set until the undertaker finally pronounces us DEAD, whilst others don’t give it much thought at all it seems. But the crux of the matter is that most of us live by Paul’s nihilistic synopsis without something like the resurrection’s implications to really sink our teeth into: that of eating, drinking and being merry; since tomorrow we all die.
The Good and Faithful Servants of Yesteryear and Today
I reminisced a bit lately about many who led the charge of bidding others and myself to the cause of Christ in my young tutelage. The sad state of affairs is that many of them too have become casualties of war, and are no longer finishing well or even on the path striving for it. They are spiritual MIA’s that no one can find remotely near the battlefield anymore, and who seem to be stoically pursuing it’s logical ends. Many also divorce pretty much the same as everyone else; watch the same movies as everyone else; look out for themselves pretty much like everybody else; and are doing their level best to pretend their former self was perhaps misguided or perhaps credulous. Let’s just say that there aren’t many heroes left from the good ole days anymore, and it doesn’t seem that new one’s are about to cause much of a fuss in this “50 shades of grey” world continually knocking just outside their front door.
Others caught up in the Fifty shades of the church’s “redefining” of what it actually means now to follow on the narrow path have surmised that it must mean merely “going to church” and dropping their weekly fire insure premium in the plate, while then scurrying off to continue to build their treasures and enjoy their pleasures right here; again, pretty much like everyone else. Christian Smith coined the dilemma among young people as a moralistic therapeutic deism, which resigns the Christian imperative to nothing more than being a good person; calling on God when one is in need; the pursuit of the betterment of oneself; and that all good boys and girls go to heaven when they die. My personal belief is that it is not just the young; but also that the old alike have now taken the ball and ran with it and made it a life science. Yet this description to me also amounts to a practical atheism among the frozen chosen who keep the external forms and trapping of their religion, while it’s real substance is discarded from their lives all together. It is in this present condition that we find ourselves, and perhaps I am also one of its imprisoned disciples. My only question is whether or not anyone else recognizes that the narrow path has now been redefined as the broader one, and whether or not we in the church are even letting the prospect interrupt our dinner plans.
What Does It Mean To Finish Well in a Fifty Shades of Grey World
So what does it mean to finish well in a fifty shades of grey world? To be sure the devil is somehow mixed in with these details. What does it mean to walk the life of faith while the church and the world are at the same dinner party? For those who recognize the snake in the garden, perhaps it means sometime walking alone with God in the cool of the day. Perhaps it also means walking sometimes in a quiet sadness, not only at our own falling short of the high calling, but in the lack of finding real communal companions who increasingly also recognize we’ve drastically veered off of the narrow road that leads to life. I think it also means the willingness to become a little weird to those at the dinner party, and that perhaps our dance card is increasingly wide open. I believe it also means the embracing of what the scriptures call becoming “strangers and aliens” in a world that is most definitely not our home, and that we must learn daily to loosen the choke-hold it unremittingly has in our lives. I believe it also means the world’s grasp will not go quietly without much prayer and fasting, and that it will increasingly mean loving and being willing to lose to and in a world that will continually reject our walking to the beat of a different drum. It must also mean becoming people whose influence means more than words and repetitive bible studies, as important as they are, but that also comes with power to heal and to save, and that has the ability to transfer people from the darkness into his marvelous light, even as the lions lick their chops in a den somewhere still down the road that only the Father knows of. And while the party guests scoff and ask “Where is the promise of his coming” since the world tick-tocks on as it always has, the disciple whom Jesus loved does not stutter as he reminds us what it means to truly finish well in a “50 shades of grey” world. He writes:
“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. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever”. (I John 2:15-17 ESV)