Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Personal Jesus

The last week or so I have been thinking about the late eighties song by new wave super-group Depeche Mode entitled “Your Own Personal Jesus.” It’s not that I’ve been in a particularly new wave kind of mood or that I suddenly have a sentimental desire to relive my high school years but it’s just that something about that title seems as if it could be the slogan for much of modern American Christianity.

I don’t know of any Christians who haven’t heard or spoken to someone about having a personal relationship with God. It’s a line that has become as common as “hallelujah” in modern Christian lingo. On the surface, the idea of a personal relationship with God makes complete sense. It resonates with folks, in part, because it carries with it the idea of kicking against the dead religious traditionalism so many have encountered in mainline denominations. Many have come to realize that though they have attended church for years or even their entire lives, they have not come to know God in a personal way. And to that end the term “personal relationship” with God is not just useful but important. That said, it is a misleading term, which I believe has set many a new Christian on a slightly misguided journey.

I know of no other country in the history of the world that has so elevated the status of the individual as modern-day America. Our culture praises and even worships the rugged individual. Our cultural icons are the likes of the Lone Ranger and the Marlboro Man, self-made billionaires and Wall Street investors, rock stars and rappers, basketball and football players with endorsement deals for clothing lines—each carving out his or her own path to personal greatness. There is a fierce optimism rooted in the belief that we Americans live in the land of opportunity and that our destinies are simply what each of us make of them. All one must do is pull himself up by his bootstraps and get on with the individual pursuit of success and happiness.

This is the American world-view and all who live in the U.S. share it to some degree. The problem is that so many of us carry this worldview into our Christianity and unconsciously mingle it with the idea of a personal relationship with God. However, unless this individualistic mentality is dealt with ruthlessly, God will simply become an end to one’s individual goals and in actuality will cease to be the center of one’s worship. My own “personal Jesus” becomes my cosmic bellhop to serve my needs and helps me fulfill my purposes.

I have heard much said in recent years about studying the Bible with care taken concerning context both scripturally and with an understanding of the times and culture and purposes for which the texts were originally written. Too often we read the word of God out of context and entirely miss what the text was saying. We take a line here or there and run with it with no regard to the other verses in front or following it. However some times even though we read the scriptures rightly, we apply them without regard to context. For instance, the word “you” in the English language can mean “you” individually or “you” collectively. But more times than not, the word “you” in the New Testament is a plural addressing the believing community. However, within our individualistically crazed society a typical Christian striving after a personal relationship with God will read every “you” in the New Testament as a personal “you” and then get on with applying the truth personally and individually. This is not all bad but can certainly be detrimental in the long run. While we are all accountable to God as individuals, we were not made to live in God’s kingdom alone, much less to come to know Him alone. The context in which we were made to live is community connected with God and one another.

Unfortunately, I bought into a very individualist approach to Christianity as a brand new Christian. It wasn’t conscious, in fact it came very naturally to me. I was going for a personal relationship with God with all my heart but yet completely alone. Even in weekend church services, surrounded by other Christians, I was basically having an individual experience. I just thought this was the way things were supposed to be. The truth is that much of the way things were conveyed in church made good work of enforcing this subtle yet destructive way of thinking.

I was a pilgrim doing my best to pull myself up by my spiritual boot-straps and become a successful Christian. Thus my relationship with God would ebb and flow with my feelings about myself because I was so self-absorbed. The very disciplined can live this kind of Christianity for a bit, and I was certainly very disciplined, but it is a very empty and wearying place to be. In fact, this type of individualized pursuit of God has more in common with Gnosticism than orthodox Christianity and when engaged, becomes fertile ground for the health-and-wealth-gospel, esoteric mysticism, or whatever spiritual trends happen to be en vogue for the moment.

In the first chapter of Genesis one will read a long list of things created by God followed by the phrase “and God saw that it was good.”

Light – Good!
Earth, Seas – Good!
Plants of every variety – Good!
Sun, Moon, Stars – Good!
Fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians – Good!
Man – Good!

The first chapter of Genesis is a window into pure unspoiled creation filled through and through with the goodness of God. Yet in all of this goodness there is one thing mentioned by none other than the creator as not being good.
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone (Gen 2:18).”
This little verse gives tremendous insight into how God created humans—we weren’t made to be alone.

Man alone — Not Good!
It is for this reason God made Eve.

Marriage was the first experience in my life where God began to chip away at my Christianized version of rugged individualism, and over the years I have found that without other believers in my life I am sunk. God did not make us to be alone on our own personal spiritual quest. Left to my own solitary devices I will burn out or fall into deception or both. And this is hard for me because I am naturally a loner. It took me many years before I even began to consciously realize the negative effects of my being such a loner. I’ve been a recovering loner for a few years now and am just beginning to experience aspects of the kingdom that were never available to me in my solitary pursuit of God. I have now come to realize that I was made to connect with God in the context of community, to be a light to the world in the context of community, to use my gifts in the context of community, and to receive from others in the context of community.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard God speak in a conversation I’ve had with a fellow Christian, or how I’ve had a weight lift off of me when I confessed my sins to another, or how some dear friend has helped my family out in a time of crisis. None of these instances were solitary. They could only happen in the context of community, and each was an opportunity to glimpse God’s kingdom by being a part of his people.

It is much more fashionable these days to find one’s own path to spiritual enlightenment. I hear folks say the most curious things about God such as “I believe in Jesus but I’m not into the church thing!” or “I’m just following God my own way” as if we can just choose from the buffet of spirituality an individually tailored path to enlightenment.

All throughout the Old Testament, God dealt with Israel primarily as a people, and throughout the New Testament God (through the apostles) continues dealing with the church as a people. As Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 14 an eye can’t make a big deal that it’s an eye because if the whole body were an eye there’d be a whole lot of seeing but nothing else—no smelling, hearing, tasting, speaking, etc. Instead, each individual part finds its place, its meaning, its voice in the whole. This is the way God set it up to work. I can attest from personal experience that I have come to a much richer experience of God by being in relationship with other believers than I ever experienced as a lone ranger.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Front Yard People

In our Post-Katrina world there has been great attention paid to economic development, political reform, rebuilding of levees and the reestablishment of city services in the New Orleans metro area. While all of these things are necessary and in much need of attention, I thank God for some of the more intangible things that are coming back in to our area.

While our neighborhood wasn’t hit as badly as many parts of New Orleans, we received enough flooding to displace hundreds of people who lived in the apartments that surround us. After personally being displaced for about 3 ½ months following the storm, we were able to buy a condo right next to our old apartment that did not flood. Though we loved our new home, the neighborhood seemed like a much different place than it had been prior to the storm. Many of our previous neighbors, who had become good friends, evacuated never to return. Each family that didn’t return left a hole in the fabric of our community. I didn’t realize how much the tearing apart of community had effected my family and our neighborhood until recently as it has gradually returned.

Over the last few weeks I have found myself on Sunday afternoons sitting on a lawn chair in our front yard playing guitar, or reading or smoking a pipe. As I sit there I can’t help but smile at what I see. I see children—a veritable united nations of them –-Black, White, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, running up and down the streets, drawing with chalk on our sidewalk, playing together with my kids in a discarded appliance box, racing each other on bikes, soaking one another with a water hose; And where there are children there are parents, parents who I would not normally bump into but with whom I find myself having conversations on those afternoons.

This place was so desolate for so long. Sure the houses were standing and the trash was being picked up, but it’s the laughter of children playing all around that indicates life is truly coming back.

I have to say I’ve never been much of a front yard type of person. I typically like my own space too much. Living in this condo has forced me out to the front yard, and for this I am grateful. I find that as I sit there, I am actually getting to know my neighbors and partake of this intangible gift of community. And that is a wonderful thing! As much as I like my own space, I think I’m warming up to the idea of being a front yard person.