When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity
By Jen Hatmaker
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hatmaker
All rights reserved.
BLACK AND WHITE, NO?
No matter how many Februaries my son Gavin navigates in public school with the monthlong focus on Black History, he cannot grasp the concept of racism. His only exposure to the world has been his multiracial school of many colors. No amount of instruction has made any sense to him. In first grade, he came home chattering about "Martin," and deep discussion ensued. When I asked why Martin was so mistreated, Gavin could offer absolutely no explanation. So when I gently suggested that it was because of his black skin color, Gavin rolled his eyes and retorted, "Jeez, Mom. He wasn't black. He was brown." Indeed.
In February of second grade, he came home with fresh indignation. "Mom, thank goodness we didn't live in Martin's time, because me and Dad couldn't be together!" Recalling the previous year's confusion, I asked why they'd be forced apart. "Duh! Because Dad has black hair!" The term black obviously applied to any old body part; the civil-rights crisis seemed fairly broad in his estimation.
When he was in fourth grade—and surely the world had ruined his innocence on this matter—I anticipated a new understanding come February. But instead, I received this weird statement: "Whew! Good thing we live in the new millennium, Mom. If we lived back in the olden days, me and Noah"—his very white, blond, blue-eyed friend up the street—"would've had to go to different schools!" I asked why he thought they'd be separated, and his answer was, "I have no idea, but for some reason no one got to go to school together back then. They just split everybody up! It was a crazy time, Mom."
Half of me is thrilled my son is so utterly naive about racism, and the other half is wondering why he cannot grasp the simple concept of skin color after six years of instruction on the issue. (This lingering confusion comes from a boy who held the E for "equal rights" on the Martin Luther King Jr. acrostic during the class poem. Touché.) Then it occurs to me that he hears these terms and studies historical events without discerning the underlying cause because he has no personal exposure to the central issue.
The facts have nothing to stick to because he misunderstands the main point.
Likewise, I still can't believe it, but I managed to attend church three times a week as a fetus, fulfill the pastor's kid role, observe every form and function of church, get swallowed whole by Christian subculture, graduate from a Baptist college, wed a pastor, serve in full-time ministry for twelve years, become a Christian author and speaker—and misunderstand the main point. I am still stunned by my capacity to spin Scripture, see what I wanted, ignore what I didn't, and use the Word to defend my life rather than define it. I now reread treasured, even memorized Scriptures and realize I never understood what they really meant. I'm a lot like my son who interpreted the civil-rights movement as a spitting contest over black hair and arbitrary school-attendance policies.
Let's back up a bit. Until two years ago, my life resembled the basic pursuit of the American dream; it just occurred in a church setting. I subscribed to the commonly agreed-upon life route: Go to college, get married, have kids, make good money, progress up the neighborhood ladder, amass beautiful things, keep our life safe and protected, raise smart children who will be wildly successful and never move back home, serve at church more than makes sense, and eventually retire in comfort. This kept me relatively safe and prosperous, just the way I liked it. Outside of tithing, we spent our money how we wanted (on ourselves), and I could live an "obedient life" without sacrificing the lifestyle I craved.
And to enlarge the church portion of that philosophy, I basically considered the church campus—Sunday morning the entry level—as the location and means to transform the average seeker into a believer. In other words, if you need something spiritual, some help, guidance, understanding, then come to us. We'll build it, and you come. Once you do, we will pour out our lives attempting to disciple you and build spiritual health into your life. My husband, Brandon, and I spent every waking moment with Christians.
We were servants of the weekend attendees.
That point of view alone kept us so busy doing church. There was a season when Brandon was gone five nights a week, leading various Bible studies and programs by his own design. We assumed this was part and parcel of the sacrifices of ministry. Still wobbly on the concept of grace, preferring to earn God's favor, we figured the pace alone meant we were on the right track. While we sincerely believe it takes all kinds, it never occurred to us to rethink, reimagine, or reconsider how we did this Christian life thing. I would have answered confidently that, yes, I was handling the gospel obediently, and I planned on continuing in this manner pretty much forever.
Looking backward, I can better identify the tension that lurked at the edges. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there was ... something off for me. That something was fueled by several particulars challenging my concept of success, beginning with the nagging sensation that Brandon and I were far too consumed with worthless things. We spent an unhealthy amount of time dreaming about our next house, our next financial increase, our next level of living. Next. We were the opposite of counterculture. We were a mirror image of culture, just a churched-up version. I was vaguely aware of this, but having invited exactly zero people into our lives who might challenge this position, I easily dismissed the thought.
There were other question marks. Like why wouldn't people commit to our church programs, despite the endless work poured into them? And why did the same people end up doing all that work? Why did 70 percent of the initial program enthusiasts drop out by the end? Why did so many leave, claiming they needed more, when we were all working eighty hours a week to meet their needs? Why couldn't I recall the last person I led to Christ? Why did I spend all my time blessing blessed people who should be on the giving side of the equation by now?
Why did I feel so dry?
READER, BEWARE: LIFE-ALTERING PRAYER AHEAD
Why did I feel so dry?
This question became the catalyst for revolution. I distinctly remember it: It was January of 2007, and I'd had two months of rest from writing and traveling. It was a sabbatical of sorts, and I was stunned to discover that I felt neither rested nor restored. I'd expected to emerge from that short season with all cylinders firing again. I had anticipated the break for months, with no events or writing deadlines in sight. Certainly it should have been the remedy to cure me of exhaustion and apathy.
I was in church that Sunday, singing a popular worship song: "My heart is dry, but still I'm singing." And I realized that was it. My heart was dry. Like dry as the desert. I felt spiritually malnourished, as if I was parched. Was I just still tired? Did I mismanage my sabbatical? How did I blow this gift of rest? What more could I possibly want from this life? My existence was charmed by any standard. What was wrong with me?
I later read a perfect summation of my angst by Shane Claiborne in The Irresistible Revolution:
I developed a spiritual form of [bulimia] where I did my devotions, read all the new Christian books and saw the Christian movies, and then vomited information up to friends, small groups, and pastors. But it never had the chance to digest. I had gorged myself on all the products of the Christian industrial complex but was spiritually starving to death. I was marked by an overconsumption but malnourished spiritually, suffocated by Christianity but thirsty for God.
That was it, though I couldn't articulate it at the time since I was unable to determine the cause. I only knew the consequential hunger.
Let me paint the picture later that morning: I was driving home with my three kids. It was not a holy moment. It was not some silent, sacred encounter with the Spirit. There was no fasting or meditation happening. As my kids were squawking in the back, I prayed a one-line prayer simply because my Christian labor had failed me and I had no idea what else to do (and I strongly advise against this prayer unless you are quite ready for God to take you seriously and wreck your life): "God, raise up in me a holy passion."
That was it. Nothing before or after it, except me immediately telling my sons that if they didn't stop fighting, I was giving their Christmas presents away to poor kids. (And before we move on, this is just how I parent, okay? My kids get plenty of warm, fuzzy love from me, but admittedly, last week after my fifth grader opened up a fresh, sassy mouth to me, I told him to get a shovel, go to the backyard, and dig his own grave. In my house, back talk is grounds for homicide. He got the point.)
Let me tell you what I intended by that prayer: I meant, "God, give me happy feelings." I was not seriously asking for intervention that would require anything of me. Hardly. "Holy passion" meant "pull me out of this funk with Your magic happiness wand." Was that too much to ask? Can't a girl get some cheery feelings about her wonderful, prosperous life? Evidently not. Because what happened after that prayer was so monumental, so life altering, nothing will ever be the same.
It started small that very week. Like a little flicker deep within somewhere. A tiny flame that sparked and caught but had not yet engulfed my life or done any significant damage to the worldview I had constructed. Not surprisingly, it began in the Word, where God and I have always done our most serious business. He turned my undiagnosed tension into a full-blown spiritual crisis.
HOLY PASSION MEETS REMEDIAL SHEPHERD
I can't remember exactly what drew me there, but I recall being pulled to John 21, when Peter declared his love for Jesus three times after His resurrection. You should know I've studied that passage approximately forty thousand times. I've done plenty of teaching on it too, raking old Peter across the coals real good.
In fact, I remember saying, "Peter completely missed the point here." Hello, irony.
So for that weird, Holy Spirit reason that we find ourselves in a certain passage or a certain job or a certain relationship, I ended up in John 21 that January. Although I'd all but forgotten my prayer, when I turned to that chapter, an eerie sense of the Spirit fell on me like a heavy blanket. The room gave up its oxygen, and I couldn't breathe right. Suddenly, there was me, the Word, and the Spirit—and nothing else existed. Before I read one word, I knew something important was happening. It became a sacred encounter, activated by a decidedly unsacred prayer earlier that week.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" (verse 15)
And like it was supernaturally edited before my eyes, the verse read, "Jen, do you truly love Me more than anything?" I don't quite know how to explain Jesus' presence—intense and terrifying and gentle at the exact same time. It was an indescribable appointment.
I do, however, know how to describe my reaction to the question: shock. "Seriously? Do I really love You? Are You serious, Jesus?"
To be honest, I felt a little insulted. Kind of injured. Only because I really love Jesus.
Usually He would call me on some nasty trait. (Like, oh—I don't know, let me just pick something hypothetically—being stubborn as a donkey and digging my heels in and dying on every hill even when there is no logical or decent reason to care about the issue, much less be willing to die for it. Hypothetically.) These disciplinary moments I had coming. There was no shock involved. (What?! Rolling my eyes at people isn't Christlike, Lord? I had no idea.) I can typically spot the medicine I'm about to get a mile away. In other words, I'm aware of my "troublesome areas," as my husband calls them.
But to have my love for Jesus called into question was surprising, and not in the good way. I am a big bag of trouble, no question, but I sincerely adore Jesus. I told Him as much too. With no small amount of indignation, I touted my affection for Him with all the self-righteous, sanctimonious ire I could muster. It was a compelling presentation, Oscar worthy, but it did nothing to end this train wreck of a conversation, because the next statement was worse:
"Yes, Lord," [Peter] said, "you know that I love you." [Which was exactly what I said but with more melodrama.]
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." (John 21:15)
"Jen, feed My lambs." What??? I started to wonder if Jesus was just messing with me. Because I was so busy feeding the lambs, I wished some would wander off into greener pastures so there would be fewer in my flock to keep up with. If that sounds mean, sorry. But I tended some dysfunctional sheep who were prone to wander and play with wolves. They were a full-time job, and I was a mediocre shepherd at best. But Lord knows I tried hard. Or I thought He knew.
"I do feed Your lambs! I feed them spiritually. I herd them into Bible studies and unleash a campaign of harassment when they wander. I counsel and pray and cry and struggle with them. Everyone I know has my number and evidently isn't afraid to use it. I don't know if You've noticed, Jesus, but I write Christian books You told me to write! I travel and feed sheep all over the nation! What the heck is this?" (I was obviously feeling entitled to a little gratitude. Please bear my arrogance for a few more paragraphs, because I was about to get schooled.)
Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" (John 21:16)
"Jen, do you really love Me in a true way?" This was the moment the back of my throat tightened, and I could feel tears starting to burn. The thing is, I usually had a decent concept of how to answer Jesus:
"Will you let Me work on that sharp tongue of yours?"
"Will you write a book for Me?" (He was artfully vague on how many.)
"Will you stop obsessing over predestination? I told you I'm fair."
But this? "Do you really love Me?" I was at a complete loss. Because my drift is to slip into self-condemnation and doubt (I am a recovering legalist, and old habits die hard), I started to think perhaps I didn't love Jesus at all. Maybe He was exposing the worst secret I'd ever kept from myself. Was I just in this Christian thing for notoriety? For selfish reasons? For money? Oh, wait. That couldn't possibly be it. But what if the affection I felt for Christ was fake or forced? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hatmaker. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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