I am 33 years old and sorting through the various threads that have woven themselves into my life from the very beginning of things. We’re all in this process, I guess. The older we get, we realize the things that are inside of us are even older than we realize. Those of us who have even the best of home lives (which I think I do) realize that there is no way of life without its baggage.
The same is true of life in the church.
I grew up in what we’d call “charismatic” churches. For those outside the Church world or entirely unsure of what that word means even though you heard it a bunch, I grew up in churches where The Scary Things happened. Well… not exorcisms and snake handling. Not that. I mean the things that freak out safe, modern, rational Americans: speaking in tongues, prophecy, visions… that kind of thing. It wasn’t some weird spectacle in our churches. It was pretty normal.
It turns out I’m not a very good charismatic, though. I always felt like a weirdo (and to be clear: I am a weirdo) and wasn’t quite sure why I felt drawn to sit quietly and meditate on the Bible while all the louder, showier things were happening. Maybe my heart is especially hard, but I always felt like I was being profoundly moved in church. Just… not on the outside. My experiences with God were intense, but they were quiet.
That always made me think there was something wrong with me.
As I grew up, I met lots and lots of people that connected with God in these quiet ways that seemed more centered around quietly thinking and praying through the Bible. There’s lots of tribes of them, but Presbyterians is where I landed and… I found fellow weirdos. I felt more comfortable and at home in church than I thought I ever would.
I do not regret growing up in charismatic churches. In fact, I’d like to extract some of that DNA and inject it into every Presbyterian I know. I mean, just like a little slice of it. I think we’d be better off. But that’s a different story.
One thing about growing up in charismatic churches was that it always seemed like God was interrupting people’s lives with mystical experiences. I mean, some people seemed to be popping into visions like a dude lost in a strange hall, looking for the right door to go through. Or they spent hours in prayer, shocked that it had indeed been hours. Or they’d just erupt into ecstatic prophecy. My impression was that this happened all the time and that these people really loved Jesus correctly.
Those kinds of experiences weren’t mine. I always figured something was deeply wrong with me.
And you know what? Some part of that doubt about myself has stuck with me.
I know now that spiritual growth, spiritual formation is more often about the quiet endurance of waiting for Jesus and slowly, painfully growing into grace. I know this through a more careful reading of the Bible and greater attention to the writings of the Church through time. I know this.
But some piece of that doubt, some kernel, some strand… it’s stuck with me.
What is wrong with me?
Now, there really could be/kind of is something wrong with me. I’m an imperfect person who often doesn’t fan the flame of loves in my heart like I should. I’m up in my head to a fault. But I also think I’m relatively normal. Rationally, that’s what I believe. I still often find myself asking myself and asking God, “Ok but… are we sure I’m not a freak?”
I’ve realized that one of the pieces of baggage that I picked up with the way I grew up is that I somehow believed that following Jesus would be ecstatically easy. That spiritual experiences would descend on me like the rain and I would climb ladders of rapture until I died surrounded in some spiritual glory cloud. None of this would require effort except perpetual days and nights spent lying on the floor waiting for the Glory. I somehow learned to believe that spiritual growth should be automatic and easy.
That’s a nasty lie.
We have no account of that kind of spiritual life in Scripture. We don’t have it in church history. Shoot, those people that I got that impression from probably would say that I didn’t get that from them!
But that’s what I believed. And that’s why I always thought I was messed up. It was never easy for me.
And here’s the other tricky thing: Many people, exposed to this kind of thinking and the shame of not measuring up to attaining the Glory, react into an attitude of “screw you, grace means that there’s no ladder and I’m full accepted and I don’t have to do anything.” There’s a great deal of truth in that statement except that one bit, “I don’t have to do anything.” Like grace means you’re delivered out of mystical accumulations into grace-secured spiritual ease.
Oddly, the kind of attitudes I’ve seen in both camps often leads me to the same place: Expect the easy.
Spiritual growth will be through mystical experiences that just fall out of heaven on you: EASY!
Spiritual growth is about doing nothing but believing the right things: EASY!
I’m trained both by culture inside and culture outside the Church to look for the easy road and my expectations have been shaped to the point that I really do believe that following Jesus should be basically (or literally) effortless. And, again, that just isn’t the testimony of Scripture or of the Christian people. The truth? Spiritual life flows graciously from a gracious God and demands that you, aided by the Holy Spirit, relentlessly murder all the little parts of you that demand to be King. That is a lifelong, slow, painful process that involves a lot of work. It is monstrously slow work to be molded into the image of the Son.
It turns out that when Jesus talked about losing/giving away your life to follow him, he really didn’t mean “Oh this will be a breeze, a lark.” He meant that it would be a slow and difficult journey.
And you know what? It’s still better than all the easy ways out.
Can I give you an example? This week is Vacation Bible School week for us in my town. Confession: I don’t like it. I don’t like doing it. I am still someone who likes the quiet room, and this is three and a half hours with 12 dozen noisy children. There’s singing out loud with motions (hate that), silly games (I’m the worst silly person), and times to talk to talk to these kids in their vocabulary about things that I would normally use at least high school vocabulary to discuss (Johnny: FOCUS UP. PLEASE). VBS is hard for me.
Everything in my past tells me: If it is hard to do, it’s not God. Don’t do it. You don’t have to do that. Grace. Experiences. Don’t.
The Truth: Figuring out how to shed my baggage, my self-importance and love kids who are not my own and be silly and play, those things murder all these parts of me that demand to be King. It’s good for me.
I dread VBS every year. And by the end of Day One, I usually say, “Well. That wasn’t awful.” By the end of the last day, I legitimately love all the kids I get assigned to and I’m glad I spent time with them. And even though I’ve learned this lesson for something like seven years now, I go through the same process. Every. Year.
Because following Jesus can be hard for dummies like me.
If you’re out there, laboring under the impression that this all should be easier by now, let me just encourage you: do the hard thing. You’re not broken or weird because it’s hard. It’s hard for all of us. But do the hard thing.
Is it hard to confront the people who have hurt you? Yeah? Do the hard thing.
Is it hard for you to go to church this Sunday because it’s been a long week? Yeah? Do the hard thing.
Is it hard for you to pull out your Bible and read it? Yeah? You too? Do the hard thing.
Jesus has put you in the position where you never have to earn his love, his favor. You are already well-beloved. You are! That’s amazing. Now you’re busy trying to convince all of you to believe that. It’s hard, hard work. It really is. You’re not alone. I’m with you. Lots of other people are with you.
Most importantly, Jesus is with you. He’s not going to give up on you or change his mind about you because this thing is hard. Run to those hard places and find him there waiting for you, delighted in you despite your hard-headed ways. Go to the hard places just so you can find him there waiting to surprise you.
Do the hard thing. It’s what we’re called to and it’s where we find Jesus.