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Sunday with Michael Spencer
From “Jesus, the Glory of the Christian Journey” (2009)
I can’t speak for anyone else, just for me.
When I became a Christian in 1974, I was immediately taught to define myself three ways.
First, did I believe that I was a sinner and that Jesus died for my sins so I could go to heaven?
Second, was I doing the the things my church taught me to do: attend worship, pray, read the Bible, tithe, “witness”, come to Sunday School, be a good Baptist?
Third, was I not doing the things my church taught me were sinful: drink, dance, use drugs, watch R-rated movies, listen to rock music, have sex outside of marriage, use profanity, work on Sundays, marry a Catholic?
That was the menu. Simple. Comprehensive. Understandable.
Jesus wasn’t absent. He was the door in. But then he seemed to vanish into the background.
God had other plans for me, however. One of my school friends introduced me to books. Christian books. He was reading C.S. Lewis. I didn’t get what that was all about.
Then he gave me a copy of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. It’s a weighty book now, and it certainly was then. I read what I could, and that wasn’t much, but it was enough to reorient my understanding of the Christian life if two ways.
First, Packer impressed upon me that the Christian life was a relationship with God- “Knowing God.” I’d never heard this before. There was some “knowing” in my faith, but it was primarily about doing. Coming to me at a time when I was starting to awaken intellectually and grow personally, I was drawn to this new way of thinking about the Christian life.
Secondly, Packer’s book demonstrated that being a Christian was a much bigger project than I ever suspected. God touched on everything, not just in the sense of “being a witness,” but in the sense that everything was a way to worship God, serve God or experience God. Suddenly, all of life, not just witnessing or listening to sermons, became part of the experience of knowing God.
I took the book to my youth director and asked him if he’d ever heard of it. He looked at it, and read the title. He told me that being a Christian was about how many people you could get to go to heaven, not about knowing God. The book, he said, sounded off track and I should avoid it.
For the first time in my life, I realized I was being led in the wrong direction by one of my spiritual leaders. It was an uncomfortable place, and I was, for a moment, torn about what to do.
I’d gone a long way down the road of identifying with my church’s way of being a Christian. I won’t recite some of what I did to try and be a good witness, but it was between comedy and the sort of travesty that is exceedingly painful to watch.
My church specialized in certainty. They were certain that the Bible absolutely would lead anyone reading it to become exactly what we were, and anyone paying attention to the Bible would do exactly what we did exactly the way we did it.
Now here I was, a teenager, still in high school, a relatively new Christian, holding a book by some Anglican guy I’d never heard of, feeling drawn by the Holy Spirit toward a new direction in understanding God. Somehow being drawn, in a way I could never explain, toward Jesus; a Jesus to whom I felt like a stranger.
Here I was feeling that maybe it wasn’t about door-knocking confrontations, dress codes, sin lists and repeated trips down the aisle to finally surrender “all.” God was reaching out to me, and showing me more of himself. To know him, I would come to know Jesus.
It was the beginning of a journey. It would take me to the Catholic charismatic movement where I learned that Jesus was much more generous and amazing than I ever had been told in my church. It was a journey that took me on to a Methodist revival team called the “New Disciples for Christ,” where I learned about calling people to follow Jesus.
It took me to college where I gave up on the rapture, and into the first suspicions that I may not have ever truly known the Father heart of God. A longing for Jesus began in me; a longing amplified when my fiancee dumped me and I began to see myself as a man.
There have been times in my life that I did not move forward with God, but camped where I was, convinced I was finally surrounded by the “real” Christians with the “final” answers. Always, God moved me on, toward a deeper fellowship with Him. Always, moving me toward Jesus.
That journey wasn’t constant. In my years on church staff, I forgot about Jesus and focused on the church. I wanted to be successful. Jesus would always be there, creating his special kind of tension with the normal expectations of ministry in a large church. Under the influence of Tony Campolo, I began taking students to eastern Kentucky and into the inner cities of Chicago and Boston. In those experiences, I began to see and sense Jesus again. I began to grow past the approved, safe Jesus of the suburban church, and to understand that Jesus was a trouble-maker; a revolutionary turning the world upside down.
In 2006, God told me to leave a church situation I’d been part of for 12 years. The result, 3 years later, was my wife going to the Roman Catholic Church and my journey with God going into the evangelical wilderness, where the same God is beckoning me on. This wasn’t where I expected to find Jesus, but I should know better. It’s always him, making me his disciple, surprising me, taking me out of the safe places and putting me where he emerges more wonderful than ever.
It is, always, the same God I heard calling me in the pages of Knowing God. I haven’t chased every wind of doctrine. With the exception of a foray into Calvinism for too long, I’ve always been much the same Baptist believer I was when I started this journey. Jesus has shown me that he isn’t a franchised product of some denomination or the spokesman for some program or cause. Jesus is the source, the head, of his body. He’s present in all the places Christians seek him, but he’s present in some many more places and in so many more ways that we ever suspect.
The constant is that God isn’t through with me, and the older I get, the more excited I am about Jesus. The more I come to see glimmers of what it really means to know him and be known by him. I now have few doubts that God is at work in my life for his glory and my benefit, but the journey won’t be a standstill. It will be new discoveries and new adventures.
In the midst of knowing God through his Son, I’m discovering that I am a member of the human race, deeply connected to all other persons in my humanity and my sinfulness. I’m discovering I don’t need to make a demonstration of what I know about anyone else’s life or how God works. I simply need to learn humility and understand that God is surprising us constantly in Jesus. I need to be open to Jesus and not turn him into the sum total of my idea of what it means to be a Christian.