As you probably know, I attended an evangelical Christian university for undergrad, and that came with a lot of “churchiness” tied to it. Mandatory chapel on Tuesdays, mandatory small groups at least once a week, and mandatory Bible-oriented classes. And as if we couldn’t get enough God in our lives, the student body organized a night of worship every other Wednesday night called Focus. Focus was a time when students led other students in several songs followed by a “sermon” also led by a different student each time. (I put “sermon” in quotes because Focus positioned itself to be a “cool” version of a church service, and I don’t know if “sermon” is a cool word. 😂)
And I hated Focus.
I was definitely in the minority with that opinion. You knew when Focus was happening because the campus (outside of the chapel) became a total ghost town. The only people who didn’t go to Focus were people who were generally writing a last minute paper. I think I may have been the only consistent person to not go out of pure spite.
The reason I took issue with Focus is because it felt an awful lot like what I called “spiritual masturbation.” It’s an intentionally gross and evocative phrase that I made up. What I mean by that is that students would walk in, get off on an emotionally spiritual high, and then leave to lead lives of sin totally contradictory to how a Christian *should* live their lives. Like, if Focus was really that transformative and powerful, then why doesn’t it seem to have any lasting effect?
To an extent, I still take issue with churches who prey on people’s emotions to further its own cause, but it has admittedly taken me a very long time to come around on things like ol’ Focus.
The truth is that I made an idol out of academic knowing. Always being the forever nerdy kid, I took the phrase “the Bible is your instruction manual for life” quite literally. I understood that if the Bible says we should or shouldn’t do something, then doggone it, we should or shouldn’t do it! Shame on you sinners for your evil ways! You with your drinking off campus, having premarital sex, slandering others on Facebook, and the like.
Of course, you can see just how prideful a position like that is. I turned God and the Bible basically into what Father Richard Rohr calls Santa Claus theology: God is making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. I now recognized the place of pain I was in that led me to hold this view point, but discussing my personal experience is too long for this post.
What I eventually came to realize is that what I knew academically didn’t align with that I knew in my heart. And admittedly, I squashed that down for a very long time. I thought, there is no way I can trust what is deep inside me. After all, do I want to live a life like the rest of these sinners?
But deep down inside, I knew how broken I was. Even if I rarely display outward signs of “badness,” I knew that deep in my heart of hearts, I held onto a lot of darkness. Heck, I still hold onto a lot of darkness. I don’t want to, but I cannot deny that it is there even if you, friends, don’t see it. (Actually, my wife probably does see it eke out a lot.)
I’ve been coming around on understanding this for some time, but what really tipped it over for me this week was basking in the love of God through the joy of my little girls. It’s been sort of a difficult week at work, and I’ve come home every evening feeling tired and stupid. Despite that, my girls rush to me with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. I’ve been overwhelmed to the point of tears many times this week wondering what I ever did be worthy of such love? What fierce grace the Lord has shown me through these little girls!
Now reading the Bible again through a different lens, I’m beginning to see how much I messed up with my Santa Claus theology. If God is in me and I am in God, where did I ever get the idea that “right behavior” is the only way to be worthy of love? I’m not calling myself God, but if I am created in the image of God — the imago dei — is there anything I can do to separate that nature through my actions? Of course not! Please do not mistake me: this is NOT an excuse to go around doing terrible things to other people. But it is simply recognizing the God nature within every thing. Not just every person, every THING. Don’t take just my word for it:
All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name. Psalm 66:4
All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. John 1:3
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. Colossians 1:16
I could go on with more and more verses from the Bible. The Word is chocked full of this imagery. How did I miss it before??
So back to Focus, I see now that those students were probably connecting with their true self — their Christ self — deep down inside of them. My take on “their actions not matching their hearts” was too dualistic in nature. It assumed that I understood their hearts, but the truth is that when I analyze my own heart, things are a lot more complicated than what is seen on the surface. My false self — my ego — holds onto a lot of things that isn’t in accordance with my true self — my Christ nature. It’s a simultaneous dance. Both are equally true at the same time. It is in everybody’s best interest for me to become more attuned to my Christ self, but beating up and berating anybody’s false self (ego) is helpful to nobody.
Before wrapping up this post, I do want to quickly circle back on something you may be wondering now: what do we do with that academic knowing? In other words, what do we do with the moral teachings of the Bible and Christian tradition?
Father Richard Rohr once again comes to the rescue here. He often uses this metaphor of a tricycle, there the front big wheel is our experiential knowing and the rear wheels are that of the Bible and Christian tradition respectively. (Christian tradition = What the church generally accepts as good practice as interpreted after the time of the Bible.) Ultimately, the rider of the tricycle (us) steers our own lives through experiential knowing, and the rear wheels help keep us on track by learning from the experiences of others. I suppose you could ride a tricycle with one wheel like a unicycle, but it would probably be very hard!
By learning how people throughout history and even today have identified themselves with their Christ nature, we benefit from them by matching their experiences to our own.
(One piece that may seem a little controversial: Christ nature is found in ALL creation, even outside of the Christian church. That said, it would be prideful of us to mark those who have experienced this Christ nature through the metaphor of other religions as inferior. I think Father Richard would agree with me when I say that we have a lot to learn from our brothers and sisters in these other religions.)
I’m 30 years old and just now barely scratching the surface on this new way of knowing, so don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a long time to absorb this. God has been working on me — in me — for a very long time now. We have a long road ahead of us, so my fondest prayer for both you and for me is that we come to unity with our Christ nature both inside ourselves and in everybody around us.
And may the same grace that God has shown me this week through my little girls also be felt by you.