(RSS readers, you may have to click through to watch the video that introduces this post.)
It’s an imperfect sort of story.
Aren’t they all?
I’ve had many moments like the story I told about “Bullfrogs and Butterflies” in that video above – times when the Spirit has used something foolish to move into my life.
Just when I think I’m educated beyond the humble old habits and ways, just when I’ve theologically proved why everything from cheesy Christian music to children’s ministry to blogging is useless and sometimes damaging, my wisdom is disrupted.
Just a quick glance at the Internet will tell us all the ways we are doing it wrong – and the ways in which everyone else has done it wrong. Whether we’re in a megachurch or a small house church, whether we went to seminary or we never did, whether we observe the Church calendar or have never prayed the liturgy, whether we listen to Christian music or turn up our noses. Maybe this week, it’s the two-week mission trip or altar calls, church camp, revivals, camp meetings, political clubs, and “asking Jesus to come into your heart” when we were children.
Foolish things, perhaps, when we strip them down.
That Christian children’s record shouldn’t have “worked” as the great pursuit of God towards our family.
But it did.
I remember, there was this TV preacher that I sort of, um, disliked.
I would see his face on the TV or grinning from yet-another-bestseller list and want to shriek words like “heresy!” and “false teacher!” and “step away from the teeth whitener and the self tanner!”
It amazed me that people like him were even on television. I railed against his popularity, convinced that his popularity was spelling the downfall of the western church. I judged the people in his megachurch as shallow seekers of feel-good entertainment.
Clearly they were not as enlightened and wise as I was (clearly – can’t you see how much like Jesus I was acting?). I thought he was a weak teacher at best, a heretical charlatan using the Gospel for his own personal gain (and a jet) at worst. His theology was atrocious, truly the worst.
And then one day, a dear friend called. This was a friend who had been on the receiving end of decades of prayer on our part. We had done everything properly with great sensitivity. All to no avail.
But he called that day because, guess what! Just last night, he had decided to follow Jesus! His whole life had changed! God is real! He was completely changed, full of life! This is amazing!
That’s wonderful, friend! But…. how… did this happen?
Well, one day, he was watching TV…. and came across this TV preacher – had I ever heard of him? Because suddenly it all made sense, everything. The Gospel message had been preached to my friend in a way that he could hear it. And the spark of life and faith and spirit had ignited in his heart.
Of course, it was that exact same TV preacher.
And I listened to my friend, full of joy, recount how he understood now what we had been trying to say but somehow this time it all just made sense. His joy, his resurrection, was tangible. This was real.
He wanted to know if I would mind telling him the name of a book that this preacher had written? He’d like to start to read his Bible but he wants to do it with help from this wonderful man of God, the one who helped him to understand and opened his heart to Jesus.
Isn’t it just amazing that there are people like this man on television? he marvelled to me. Yes, amazing, I said slowly.
My wisdom felt like judgement ash in my own mouth.
I’ve been thinking about an old story in Acts chapter 5 lately. In the heady early days of the Church, Peter and John were once again arrested for preaching Christ and his resurrection. The High Council was furious and wanted to kill them.
But a wise and well-respected Pharisee named Gamaliel stood up and said something incredibly profound:
“Men of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! Some time ago there was that fellow Theudas, who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed, and all his followers went their various ways. The whole movement came to nothing. After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered. So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!” (Acts 5:35-39, NLT)
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
– excerpted from As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins
I’m a recovering know-it-all. It seems just when I finally have an opinion locked into place, exceptions will abound.
Black-and-white thinking has been denied to me in many areas of my life – some days, I can’t figure out if this is a cross to bear or a mercy to enjoy.
The Spirit always sweeps into my opinions and preferences with holy disruption.
Now I’ve lived through enough evolutions of my self and enough transformation by the Spirit that I have learned to keep my mouth shut a bit more, to wait in kindness, to hold it loosely. I try to think critically without giving myself over to a critical heart. I try to be kind, to remember the ways that I have grown and changed, the ways that I will continue to grow and change.
My story began in a way that has typified most of my walk with Jesus: subjective, earthy, humble, experiential. No matter how hard I try to find a different and more “elevated” path, I always end up circling like a corkscrew back around the same truths I learned at the beginning, my charismatic practices only enriched by the wisdom and practices of ancients through the ages and the prophets alongside of me now.
As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, Christ plays in ten thousand places. Is it such a stretch to believe he played so beautifully in my history? in the foolish ways we try to disciple and lead each other? Is it such a stretch to believe that the Spirit moved into a family and changed everything because of one 14-year-old babysitter who gave away a children’s record from the 70s? what about in a megachurch pastor’s sunny sermons? in a television show about prosperity preachers? in our pet theologians and favourite scapegoats and Twitter-sparring contests? in a seminary ivory tower? in Alcoholics Anonymous? in the liturgy? in the old habits of the quiet morning hour spent in Scripture? in tongues and Awanas? in the Baptists and the Presbyterians and the Vineyard and the anti-institutional movement? in the vacation Bible schools and accountability groups? in the atheists and agnostics? in the powerful and the powerless alike?
I’m learning to move a bit slowly. Maybe the “next big thing” will come to nothing. Maybe the old thing that once-was turned out to be nothing. But maybe, just maybe, Christ is playing there, too.
But here is the truth: No one else came to our family with the Gospel. Our only missionary was a little fourteen-year-old girl offering up a Christian record and her unspoken hopes for us. Resurrection hides in the foolish places, it seems.
According to the “experts,” these imperfect people or methods or tactics or habits shouldn’t work. We’ve grown out of them, surely. Put such childish things behind us. We are wise, nuanced, well-educated now. Right? These ways are sometimes crass, sometimes misguided, sometimes lame. And worse, sometimes they are truly damaging, evil even, and we are left trying to untangle ourselves from the wreckage of someone else’s god.
Perhaps we can now admit: we would do things differently now – if we knew then what we know now. The old ways of our history are often foolish things when we strip them down. And yet they continue to confound the wise.
Christ played there. Christ plays there. And Christ will continue to play there.
The Spirit disrupts our wisdom and our opinions and our preferences.
It’s an imperfect sort of story.
Aren’t we all?
(The video is one of many produced by The Work of the People.)